Jodi Picoult’s “The Book of Two Ways,” begins with one of the greatest fears shared by travelers: “Will my plane fall out of the sky?” During the COVID-19 pandemic, it feels like we are mid-flight facing an emergency landing. The COVID-19 crisis is an opportunity for all of us to examine our lives just as Dawn McDowell Edelstein, the main character does in Picoult’s book. While Dawn wonders if these are her last moments before dying, she is aware that her first thoughts are not of her husband, her daughter, or her dead mother but of Wyatt Armstrong, a man who hasn’t been part of her life for 15 years. Wyatt represents the life that she left behind in Egypt along with her dissertation about the first known map of the afterlife.
She wonders what if?
During COVID-19, many are wondering about the businesses that no longer exist, the jobs that have been eliminated, the friends and family members who have perished, and the dreadful illness that might force us into isolation or worse.
If you were one of 36 people to walk away from a plane crash, what would you do next? While many families are reeling from losses from the current pandemic, some are wondering will we move forward in the same direction we’ve been traveling or will it be time to pivot and rekindle a long-forgotten desire or create a new path.
Dawn has questions: “Why am I alive when others aren’t? Why did I book this particular flight? What if I’d been detained checking in and had missed it? What if I’d made any of a thousand other choices that would have led me away from this crash?”
In her career as a death doula, Dawn often asks her clients, “What’s left unfinished? What is it that you haven’t done yet?” When the airline offers Dawn a flight home to Boston or anywhere she needs to go in the world, she chooses to return to Egypt. After 15 years she returns to the dig house and in some ways, it’s like she’s only been gone for a moment as if one could simply rewind and start again. Dawn tells Wyatt: “I want to work here. I want to finish what I started.” If you could turn back the clock, what would you try again?
This story unravels in alternating chapters of Land/Egypt and Water/Boston with her two lives, two men and her life story unfolding for us. One of my favorite things about reading this book during a time when we are not allowed to travel was feeling like I was visiting the tombs of Osiris and the other gods of ancient Egypt. When Jody Picoult vividly describes the sand in Dawn’s hair and her sandwich along with the details of the murals and the daily life on an archaeological site, I felt like I was there too.
As a general contractor of death, Dawn helps her clients navigate the end of their lives. As a graduate student, she was working to understand the Egyptian belief of something quite similar about preparing for the end of life and the journey to a great afterlife.
After a call that changed her life, Dawn was uncertain about how to complete her Ph.D. Like Dawn, many of us are unsure about a path forward right now and this book is the perfect antidote for our current challenges.
When Dawn first meets Brian at the hospice where her mother and his grandmother are both dying, she contemplates how she is an Egyptologist who’s been ripped out of Egypt. Many times reading this book, I was struck that while Dawn is experiencing parallel lives; the COVID-19 Pandemic has forced many to consider new pathways as ones we assumed would continue were abruptly removed from opportunity.
In both of Dawn’s timelines, there are crossroads, challenges, and unforeseen twists. As I read, I reflected on my own life after various crossroads: I overcame the trauma of losing my job abruptly after 9/11 after my employer filed for bankruptcy; I survived the devastation of the end of my marriage and the loss of promises unfulfilled, and I still had my life. During the COVID-19 Pandemic, I wonder which people and businesses will survive this deadly virus.
Following Dawn’s journey was exactly the escape I needed; it helped me think about my own choices as hers unfurled. At one point Wyatt says to Dawn, “What’s going on? People do not get to rewind their lives, to rewrite the outcome. We make our beds and we lie in them.” But maybe we have more power than we think!
I loved it when she described how “Ancient Egyptians believed that the first and most necessary ingredient in the universe was chaos. It could sweep you away, but it was also the place from which all things start anew.” Perhaps this current state of our world will lead us to something brand new. Many new businesses are born when entrepreneurs pivot and solve a problem. How will you pivot?
Picoult’s depth of knowledge including Dawn’s random cocktail party fact that: “When the mummy of Ramesses II was sent to France in the 1970s, he got his own passport, and the occupation was listed as King/Deceased” drew me in and made me imagine it as a major motion picture. I cannot wait to see this book on the big screen with the vast expanse of sand, the heat of the day at the dig, dancing in the moonlight, and the choices we make and live with.
The way the storylines reach across into each other is evidence this author’s story architecture is as intentional and complicated as the ancient Egyptian tombs she describes. Each part is carefully crafted and reflects across its sliding door. When we discover that Brian knew about Wyatt’s letters and when Dawn leaves for Amsterdam on Win’s errand with her canvas, the reader is let in on how quantum mechanics begins to fold upon itself and I realized I was reading more slowly so that this magnificent story would not end. Just as the dawn rises each day, I decided I would simply finish the book and begin it again so it would not end for me.
Dawn is asked by her client, Win: “Did you ever wonder who you would have been if you hadn’t become who you are?” This quote sums up the book and the different pathways the soul could take after death in Egypt and during the COVID-19 Pandemic. Observing the colorful tapestry of Dawn’s life-if you pull one thread and follow it through all of these intricate characters, you find a pattern, a map, or a life. Dawn explained that: “Maps don’t have to be literal. They might be drawn to depict the real world, to dream of fictional space, or to inspire a symbolic one.” A central question of this book is what does it mean to live a good life? What map will you choose? Do you have a North Star or compass to guide you? It might be love, a person, or a passion. “What if that one decision set off a whole chain of other forks in the path?” If you could pick self-discovery and reinvention, what new direction would you take?