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Songs of the Humpback Whale

A Novel


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About The Book

Jodi Picoult’s powerful novel portrays an emotionally charged marriage that changes course in one explosive moment.

Sometimes finding your own voice
is a matter of listening to the heart...

For years, Jane Jones has lived in the shadow of her husband, renowned San Diego oceanographer Oliver Jones. But during an escalating argument, Jane turns on him with an alarming volatility. In anger and fear, Jane leaves with their teenage daughter, Rebecca, for a cross-country odyssey charted by letters from her brother Joley, guiding them to his Massachusetts apple farm, where surprising self-discoveries await. Now Oliver, an expert at tracking humpback whales across vast oceans, will search for his wife across a continent—and find a new way to see the world, his family, and himself: through her eyes.


Chapter One: Jane

The night before I got married I woke up, screaming, from my sleep. My parents came into the room and put their arms around me; they patted my head and smoothed my hair, fine, and I still couldn't stop screaming. Even with my mouth closed, I continued -- the high, shrill note of a nocturnal animal.

My parents were beside themselves. We lived in a button-down suburb of Boston, and we were waking up the neighbors one by one. I watched the lights come on in different houses -- blue and yellow, blinking like Christmas -- and wondered what was happening to me.

This wasn't a common occurrence. I was barely nineteen, a straight-A student fresh out of Wellesley College and in 1976 that was still an accomplishment. I was marrying the man of my dreams in a prototypical white clapboard New England church, and the reception -- a lavish one with white-gloved waiters and Beluga caviar -- was going to be held in my parents' backyard. I had a job waiting for me when I returned from my honeymoon. There was no foreseeable problem that I could articulate.

To this day, I don't know why that happened to me. As mysteriously as it all started, the screaming went away and the next morning I married Oliver Jones -- the Oliver Jones -- and we just about lived happily ever after.

I am the only speech pathologist in this town, which means I get shuttled back and forth to different elementary schools in the San Diego suburbs. It's not such a big deal now that Rebecca is old enough to take care of herself, and since Oliver is away so much of the time, I have less to do at home. I enjoy my work but certainly not the way Oliver enjoys his work. Oliver would be content to live in a sailcloth tent on the coast of Argentina, watching his whales sound in warm water.

My job is to help children find their voices -- kinds that come to school mute, or with lisps or cleft palates. At first, they come into my little makeshift classroom one at a time and they shuffle their Keds on the floor and shyly glance at the formidable recording equipment and they are absolutely silent. Sometimes I stay silent too, until the student breaks the ice and asks what he or she is supposed to do. Some students cover their mouths with their hands at this point; I have even seen one little girl cry: they cannot stand to hear their own voices, pieces of themselves that they have been told are ugly. My role is to show them there's someone who is ready to listen to what they have to say and the way they have to say it.

When I was seven, I tell these kids, I used to whistle every time I said the letter S. In school I got teased and because of this I did not have many friends and I did not talk very much. One day my teacher told the class we'd be putting on a play and that everyone had to participate. I was so nervous about reading aloud in front of everyone else that I pretended I was sick. I faked a fever by holding the thermometer up to a light bulb when my mother left the room. I was allowed to stay home for three days, until my teacher called, and my mother figured out what I was doing. When I went back to school, my teacher called me aside. All of the parts had been taken in the play, she said, but she had saved a special role for me, offstage. I was going to be the Manager of Sound Effects, just like in the movies. I practiced with my teacher every day after school for three weeks. In time I discovered I could become a fire engine, a bird, a mouse, a bee, and many other things because of my lisp. When the night of the play came, I was given a black robe and a microphone. The other students got to be just one part, but I became the voice of several animals and machines. And my father was so proud of me; it was the only time I remember him telling me so.

That's the story I give at those Coastal Studies cocktail parties Oliver and I go to. We rub shoulders with people who'll give grant money. We introduce ourselves as Dr. and Dr. Jones, although I'm still ABD. We sneak out when everyone is going to sit down to the main course, and we run to the car and make fun of people's sequined dresses and dinner jackets. Inside, I curl up against Oliver as he drives, and I listen to him tell me stories I have heard a million times before -- about an era when you could spot whales in every ocean.

In spite of it all, there's just something about Oliver. You know what I'm talking about -- he was the first man who truly took my breath away, and sometimes he still can. He's the one person I feel comfortable enough with to share a home, a life, a child. He can take me back fifteen years with a smile. In spite of differences, Oliver and I have Oliver and I.

In this one school where I spend Tuesdays, my office is a janitorial closet. Sometime after noon the secretary of the school knocks on the door and tells me Dr. Jones is on the phone. Now this is truly a surprise. Oliver is at home this week, putting together some research, but he usually has neither the time nor the inclination to call me. He never asks what school I head to on a given day. "Tell him I'm with a student," I say, and I push the play button on my tape recorder. Vowel sounds fill the room: AAAAA EEEEEIIIII. I know Oliver too well to play his games. OOOOO UUUUU. Oh, you. Oh, you.

Oliver is Very Famous. He wasn't when we met, but today he is one of the leading researchers of whales and whale behavior. He has made discoveries that have rocked the scientific world. He is so well known that people take pictures of our mailbox, as if to say, "I've been to the place where Dr. Jones lives." Oliver's most important research has been on whale songs. It appears that whole groupings of whales sing the same ones -- Oliver has recorded this -- and pass the songs down over generations. I don't understand much about his work, but that is just as much my fault as Oliver's. He never tells me about the ideas burning in his mind anymore, and I sometimes forget to ask.

Naturally Oliver's career has come first. He moved us to California to take a job with the San Diego Center for Coastal Studies, only to find out East Coast humpbacks were his true passion. The minute I got to San Diego I wanted to leave, but I didn't tell Oliver that. For better or for worse, I had said. Oliver got to fly back to Boston and I stayed here with an infant, in a climate that is always summer, that never smells like snow.

I'm not taking his phone call.

I'm not taking this again, period.

It is one thing for me to play second fiddle; it is another thing to see it happen to Rebecca. At fourteen she has the ability to take a survey of her life from a higher vantage point -- an ability I haven't mastered at thirty-five -- and I do not believe she likes what she is seeing. When Oliver is home, which is rare, he spends more time in his study than with us. He doesn't take an interest in anything that isn't tied to the seas. The way he treats me is one matter: we have a history; I hold myself accountable for falling in love in the first place. But Rebecca will not take him on faith, just because he is her father. Rebecca expects.

I've heard about teenagers who run away, or get pregnant or drop out of school, and I have heard these things linked to problems at home. So I offered Oliver an ultimatum. Rebecca's fifteenth birthday next week coincides with Oliver's planned visit to a humpback breeding ground off the coast of South America. Oliver intends to go. I told him to be here.

What I wanted to say is: This is your daughter. Even if we have grown so far apart that we don't recognize each other when we pass, we have this life, this block of time, and what do you think about that?

One reason I keep my mouth shut is Rebecca's accident. It was the result of a fight with Oliver, and I've been doing my best to keep something like that from happening again. I don't remember what that argument was about, but I gave him a piece of my mind and he hit me. I picked up my baby (Rebecca was three and a half at the time) and flew to my parents. I told my mother I was going to divorce Oliver; he was a lunatic and on top of this he'd hit me. Oliver called and said he didn't care what I did but I had no right to keep his daughter. He threatened legal action. So I took Rebecca to the airport and told her, "I'm sorry, honey, but I can't stand that man." I bribed a stewardess with a hundred dollars to take her on the plane, and it crashed in Des Moines. The next thing I knew I was standing in a farmer's cornfield, watching the wreckage smoke. It still seemed to be moving. The wind sang through the plane's limbs, voices I couldn't place. And behind me was Rebecca, singed but intact, one of five survivors, curled in her father's arms. She has Oliver's yellow hair and freckles. Like him, she's beautiful. Oliver and I looked at each other and I knew right then why fate had made me fall in love with a man like Oliver Jones: some combination of him and of me had created a child who could charm even unyielding earth.

Copyright © 1992 by Jodi Picoult

Reading Group Guide

Songs of the Humpback Whale
WSP Readers Guide
Jodi Picoult's richly literary novel Songs of the Humpback Whale tells the story of a fragile family and one woman's voyage towards self-discovery. When an explosive argument with her husband prompts Jane and her daughter Rebecca to abruptly leave their California home, the two women head east armed with little other than a few dollars, the clothes on their backs, and their love for one another. Traversing their way across the United States, following the directional clues provided to them by Jane's brother Joley, Jane and Rebecca inch their way toward Massachusetts while Oliver, an expert whale tracker, follows close behind his wife and daughter.
When Jane and Rebecca arrive at a Massachusetts apple orchard, they each meet new people who will challenge them and force them to reconsider their life choices. Sam, a small-town apple farmer, pushes Jane to unveil the secrets of her past, finally enabling her to open her heart in the present. When Rebecca witnesses her mother and Sam's burgeoning love affair, she finds solace in Hadley, who offers her the support and nurturing she has so often yearned for from her own parents. Once Oliver arrives at the orchard to reclaim his family, Jane must finally decide whether or not to abandon her newfound love in order to return to California and fulfill her responsibilities to her husband and her daughter. It is only after a tragic accident that the Jones family can finally return home, together again but forever changed.
Questions and Topics for Discussion
Warning: Spoilers Ahead
1. Discuss the novel's structure. How did the alternating voices enhance or detract from the reading experience for you? Did you find that the characters' differing accounts of the events of the novel added to the dramatic tension, and how so? Similarly, Rebecca is the only character to narrate the novel's events backwards chronologically. How does this affect the reading experience?
2. So much of the novel is about voice and people finding themselves through their voices -- Jane is a speech therapist, Oliver tracks whale songs, Joley's words guide Jane and Rebecca across the country. Which relationships in the novel are founded on spoken connections and which are based on something other than language? How are these relationships different? How do these different relationships affect the characters?
3. When mentioning his research, Oliver proposes that the personal histories of whales -- "who the whale is, where he has been sighted, with whom he has been sighted -- tell us something about why he sings the way he does" (9). Discuss how each of the characters in the novel are shaped by their past?
4. The relationship between Jane and Rebecca is one of the most complex in the novel. Although Jane is Rebecca's mother, it often seems that Rebecca is the more mature person -- Hadley even tells Sam that Rebecca takes "better care of her mother than the other way around" (312). Rebecca similarly comments that she and Jane are "more like equals" (107). Discuss their relationship. Why do you think they relate to one another this way?
5. Although it is Rebecca who packs up, gets in the car, and urges her mother to run away from Oliver, she also misses her father and her home while she and her mother are traveling across the country. Speculate on what Rebecca really wants for each of her parents. Do you think she wants to return to California? Why or why not?
6. The relationship between Joley and Jane is one of the most meaningful in the novel. Although Jane spent most of her childhood protecting Joley, it is Joley who cares for Jane in her adult life. Discuss the bond between them. What is it based on? Does Joley's love for Jane seem illicit at times, why or why not?
7. Joley tells Jane and Rebecca that he will write them across the country, sending them "to places he thinks they need to go." Discuss the different geographic locations of their voyage. Why do you think Joley sends them to each place he does? How does each location affect them?
8. Sam comments that "if you leave things to their natural course, they go bad." Discuss Sam and his life choices. In what ways has he struggled against the natural course of his life, and in which ways has he accepted that he is living the life he was destined to?
9. When Sam and Jane first meet, they each assume certain things about one another -- Jane assumes that Sam is a simple farmer, and Sam assumes that Jane is no different from other wealthy Newton girls. In what ways do Sam and Jane live up to one another's assumptions, and in what ways do they each defy the other's preconceived notions?
10. Chapters 39, 40, and 41 offer Rebecca, Jane's, and Oliver's different perspectives of the plane crash. Although these chapters all begin the same way: "Midwest Airlines flight 997 crashed on September 21, 1978, in What Cheer, Iowa -- a farming town sixty miles south east of Des Moines," they each offer three different perspectives of the same event. Discuss these differing perspectives. What do the differences and similarities reveal about each character and the impact that event had on the rest of their lives?
11. At the site of the plane crash, Oliver finally finds Jane and Rebecca. Though he is sitting close enough to touch them, he finds that he cannot bring himself to announce his presence. What is Oliver thinking? How does this moment motivate him to change? By the end of the novel, has he successfully transformed himself?
12. When Oliver goes to save Marble, the whale that is tangled in nets in Gloucester, it seems that he is temporarily calling off his search for his wife and daughter. How did you react to his decision? Do you think that Oliver was motivated only by a desire to get on camera and to make a public plea for Jane and Rebecca, or did you think that he may have been reverting to his old ways?
13. At the end of the novel, Jane abandons her love for Sam, choosing instead to honor her responsibilities to her husband and daughter. How did you react to that choice? Did you find it surprising? Frustrating? What clues did Picoult provide throughout the novel to signal that Jane would eventually make this choice?
14. Jane comments that "you can take dead trees in an orchard and bring them back to life" (346). Discuss the final moments of the novel. In what ways have Jane, Rebecca, and Oliver changed? Do you think that the conclusion of the novel is ultimately hopeful about the family's future? Why or why not?

About The Author

Photograph © Adam Bouska

Jodi Picoult received an AB in creative writing from Princeton and a master’s degree in education from Harvard. The recipient of the 2003 New England Book Award for her entire body of work, she is the author of twenty-seven novels, including the #1 New York Times bestsellers House Rules, Handle With Care, Change of Heart, and My Sister’s Keeper, for which she received the American Library Association’s Margaret Alexander Edwards Award. She lives in New Hampshire with her husband and three children. Visit her website at

Product Details

  • Publisher: Atria/Emily Bestler Books (October 1, 2001)
  • Length: 352 pages
  • ISBN13: 9780743431019

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Raves and Reviews

Ann Hood Author of Do Not Go Gentle Rich and charming....Jodi Picoult casts a spell with her beautiful imagery and language. Reading this book is a delight.

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