Jacquelyn Mitchard's "The Deep End of the Ocean" is worthy of its status as a "bestseller" in every sense. Published in 1996, the novel has gone through all the necessary motions in order to claim its spot in the bestseller spotlight. A debut novel from a former journalist forging bravely into the arena of fiction writing, "The Deep End of the Ocean" wowed critics, readers, and even Oprah. Mitchard made a name for herself by slamming readers with 434 pages of ambitiously heart-wrenching drama and suspense, a morbidly irresistible tale of a family ravaged by their youngest son's kidnapping and miraculous return nine years later. 1996 was a whirlwind year for the novel: forecasted for immediate success by Publisher's Weekly in April and released in July, "The Deep End of the Ocean" had already appeared for its 19-week stint on the Publisher's Weekly Bestseller List by September. Quickly snapped up by Oprah Winfrey as the first selection for her on-air book club that same month, sales for the novel skyrocketed, as did recognition and acclaim for Mitchard's gift as a fiction writer. "The Deep End of the Ocean" was fueled for bestseller status by a number of factors. The novel boasts everything a voracious reader could hope for: a tragic event as the catalyst for a wrecked, sympathy-evoking family, complete with a rocky marriage, shouting matches with the in-laws, a much-anticipated scene of adultery, and a problematic angst-ridden teen. The reader is hurled through a series of hopes, plummets, and near-resolutions, propelled by a thirst for answers that never seem to come?a masterful authorial trick that elicits reviews like this one: "If there's anything you need to do, get it done before you start reading this book, because once you start reading you will never stop." The novel's most appealing "bestseller" quality is that of its terrifying universality; the horrible picture that Mitchard so skillfully paints is enthrallingly, frighteningly realistic. Mitchard's life experience as a journalist, mother, and wife lend to the novel's uncannily realistic qualities, and her stylistic gift of character depiction that is able to elicit compassion, frustration, and gut-wrenching empathy from a reader are among her most coveted weapons as a successful bestselling author.
THE INFLUENCE OF THE MEDIA: FROM OPRAH TO HOLLYWOOD
While Mitchard's writing is powerful and influential in itself, the fact that the book was highly publicized by Oprah Winfrey and later in a film version cannot be ignored. With an average of 13 million Americans tuning into the Oprah Winfrey Show's monthly broadcast of Oprah's Book Club, it is no wonder that selling status is shown to greatly increase when books are hyped by Oprah. An article entitled "The Oprah Effect" flat-out claims that Oprah's Book Club "has been responsible for 28 consecutive bestsellers. It has sold more than 20 million books and made many of its authors millionaires" (Max 2). As the first novel to be selected for Oprah's Book Club, "The Deep End of the Ocean" certainly derived a great deal of its success from this exposure. In fact, the article goes so far as to credit all of the novel's success to its "Oprahfication." The initial printing of the book yielded 68,000 copies. Three months later, when Oprah selected the book for her club, 100,000 more copies were shipped. By the time Oprah's racket about the book had died down, "Viking ended up filling 750,000 more orders. ?The Deep End of the Ocean' would go on to have 4 million copies in print" (Max 5). This novel seems to have set the tone for the types of novels selected by Oprah, novels deemed by Doubleday editor Deborah Futter "moving, painful human stor[ies]" (Max 2). It is a novel that meets Oprah's standards, because it is a novel that she claims "teaches us something about ourselves" (Max 3), as she believes all of her selections to do. Mitchard herself recognizes and attributes the raging success of her first novel to Oprah's attention to it. She stated in the article, "If you send my name to the 900,000 who bought ?Deep End of the Ocean' because of Oprah, it will mean nothing to them. There's no carryover. You learn quickly Oprah's the brand name, not you" (Max 7). She came to terms with this when her second novel, "The Most Wanted," was refused?virtually ignored?by Oprah. "It was not Winfrey's kind of book. No one at Harpo Productions read it. It did not do well" (Max 7). Although the public had enough faith in Mitchard to read her first novel, this did not translate to her ensuing work, raising the question of just how much success she would have encountered from her first novel without the strong, steady hand of Oprah.
The book was able to maintain its presence in mainstream American culture through the 1999 adaptation of the plot into a movie. With a cast headlined by Michelle Pfeiffer and Whoopi Goldberg, the film was sure to attract viewers on star appeal alone, regardless of their awareness of Mitchard's novel. The return to high exposure a few years after the novel's publication was certainly another sales boost, as new editions of the book were released featuring Michelle Pfeiffer on the cover.
THE LITERATURE ITSELF:
Perhaps one of the biggest challenges to a novelist is the importance of the believable. Concocting an interesting plot is one thing; conveying it in a realistic and believable manner is quite another. Mitchard's realistic dialogue and plausible scenarios reverberate throughout the novel, making for an easy, automatic flow of reading, without any of the far-fetched or jarring moments of "wait a minute?no way" that can distort and disrupt the ability to appreciate and become absorbed in the reading. Part of Mitchard's credibility is derived from her years as a newspaper reporter and journalist. "Mitchard is an easy read. Her years as a syndicated columnist make her dialogue sound familiar and the narrative flow" (Bookreporter.com). In this sense, Mitchard masters one of the first necessary hurdles for a writer: writing in a style that is both captivating and automatically believable. Aside from narrative and dialogue, her journalistic/media experience also makes smooth and natural the many scenes actually depicting the media. As someone who is familiar with the world of the media in a much more intimate sense than the average person, Mitchard is able to paint these descriptive scenes with a keen vividness. From her experience with the very media her novel deplores, she succeeds in creating an air of authenticity in her scenes of media frenzy. When she describes the scene that Beth encounters outside of the hotel from which her son, Ben, was kidnapped, we can easily imagine that we are walking beside her, past the "half-dozen squads ranged around the circle drive in a loose ring, including a van Beth assumed from the array of electronic plumage on top housed a portable communications center. Cables snaked from the van across the sidewalk, under and through the doors of the Tremont. The fabled Eyewitness News truck was still there as well, its white-eyed lights giving the whole dark stretch of pavement an Oscar-night feel" (Mitchard 57). This is only a single instance of insight-filled description, and would be easily glanced over as merely background description by a reader. However, it is this easy acceptance that is in fact the beauty of it. Mitchard's insight allows for all the more accurate and credible portrayal of what accompanies an event like a kidnapping. Another instance of Mitchard's journalistic insight into what the media sees and perceives is evident in the scene in which Beth prepares to face a televised interview:
"I look like a sack of shit."
"That's okay," said Candy, and Beth thought, remembering her newspaper days, yes, of course, this is a tableau: the grieving mother she had herself photographed five or ten times, eyes dreadful with sleep deprivation, cheekbones like rocky ridges. "But you don't want to look frightening," Candy went on, "or they'll think?"
"They'll think what?"
"That you're nuts and you did it" (Mitchard 65).
We can recognize the insight provided by Candy Bliss, a detective supervisor with a stripper's name, as insight belonging to Mitchard herself from her own career experience. Although a reader may not realize the effect that such descriptions have on their reading of the book, these manifestations of the author's experience add a level of credibility to the novel that is elemental to its success. Without the realistic edge, the painful jostle of reality, the book could have easily been chalked up as a sleuthy detective novel with fast-talking heroes and swooning female victims. Every element of Mitchard's story is "chillingly and beautifully real" (www.Oprah.com), contributing immensely to a reader's ability to empathize, and therefore contributing to the book's bestseller success.
The most startlingly real aspect of the novel is that of the Cappadora family's dynamics. "Mitchard imbues her suspenseful plot with disturbingly candid psychological truths about motherhood and family relationships. Displaying an infallible ear for family conversation and a keen eye for domestic detail, she writes dialogue that vibrates with natural and unforced humor and acerbic repartee" (Publisher's Weekly, 4/1/96). As a wife and mother of six children, Mitchard is able to effortlessly project her own knowledge of family behavior and communication onto her work. In a 1997 interview, Mitchard stated, "You write about what obsesses you at your core, and it's obvious that domestic life is my turf." She paints a married couple so vividly that readers can easily believe that they know them, perhaps even recognize them as manifestations of themselves. Illuminating qualities to be both admired and scorned in any parent or spouse, Mitchard portrays Beth and Pat Cappadora in a manner that is simultaneously tender and abrasive, and altogether achingly real. Beth is a woman who obviously cares for her family, but is at the same time "harried, impatient, disorganized, and ambivalent about her husband and her kids?faults that come back to haunt her after her middle child disappears in a crowded hotel lobby" (www.Oprah.com). Essentially, she is a woman that every wife and mother knows that she herself could easily become with the slightest slip-up. Beth is a woman who somehow imagines a rustling in the garage to be a rodent before she thinks of her own child, yet by the end of the same scene, is engulfed by a love for the child she nearly forgot:
"She heard a rustle in the dark from the corner of the garage, where the snowblower was stored, and her heart did thump then. A rat. A fat, bold raccoon, waiting to bite. She threw open the car door and nearly knocked Vincent over.
?Baby!' Beth cried. ?I didn't see you!'
Vincent buried his face in her belly, nearly knocking Beth back into the seat. And suddenly, easily, she was holding him too, eagerly pulling him up onto her lap" (Mitchard 116).
Beth's husband, Pat, is everything that Beth appears to be lacking. His tender regard and affection for his children and his heartache over Ben's loss radiates from the pages of the novel, and is encapsulated by the scene in which he first encounters Ben, nine years after his kidnapping:
"It was Pat's gathered energy Beth could still feel when she thought of that instant?his coil; she thought he would leap up onto the step, leaving her behind, numbed, her arms hanging thick and useless. He had, instead, raked his hair, once, and then walked up to the step slowly, cautiously, the way a field biologist would approach a newborn antelope, and extended his palm, made as if to shake hands. And when the child only stared at him, Pat had lifted his hand, run one thumb down the side of Ben's face, from his hairline to his chin, and asked, ?How are you?'" (Mitchard 278)
The balance of Beth's ambivalence, resigned hopelessness and passive inactivity with Pat's fervently emotional desperation creates an unbearable yet irresistibly realistic depiction of mourning and suffering. It is this jolting self-recognition and the clutching realization that this family could easily be your family, that their grief could be your grief, that strikes a chord in the reader's heart. An empathetic appreciation for the Cappadoras is instilled in the reader that contributes to the incessant dedication to this novel, thereby propelling it forward in the bestseller arena.
Not only is Mitchard a mother and wife, but she is one who has dealt with her own fair share of grief and suffering. She and her first husband battled with the emotional trauma of infertility and a nearly fatal tubal pregnancy that resulted in the loss of their unborn child. She also suffered the traumatic loss of her first husband to cancer, leaving her as the single mother of five adopted children. A veteran of loss and mourning, Mitchard encompasses the stages of grief with stifling, agonizing authenticity. Through the Cappadora family, and most directly through Beth, she traces the progression of human reaction from rational to numb, then from hysteria to resignation. Beth's initial reaction, that of collected rationality, is tragic to us as readers, as we know this is a story of a kidnapping. Privy to the secret that Beth has not yet realized, we instantly climb aboard the sympathy train as we read the lines, "She didn't feel the bottom-out sensation that preceded frenzy. Ben was in the room. The room was filled with people, all good people, grownups who knew Beth, who would ask a little kid where his mama was" (Mitchard 26). She proceeds to a feeling of nauseous panic as the reality sets in, and Mitchard's language conveys that in the most tangible terms. "Beth supposed she should lie down; her throat kept filling with nastiness and her stomach roiled" (Mitchard 44). Following a hysterical episode of screaming her son's name and vomiting, a period of resignation begins to set in:
"Beth had to pee. She got up, danced sideways for a step, then made her way into the lush, cream-tiled bathroom. She peed, steady, calm, purged, as if the medicine had deadened a section of brain stem. She wanted to brush her teeth. I am doing the things people do, Beth thought, still wanting to eliminate my body's wastes, clean myself, quench my thirst. Unbidden, Beth thought how even when her mother died, she and Ellen were stunned, not that life went on, but how quickly life went on, and how unchanged it was. People could not wait to eat or to get a newspaper" (Mitchard 55).
This portrayal of the return to the mundane is spoken by the voice of experience, a voice that is undoubtedly shared by anyone who has ever suffered a loss and gone through the stages of behavior that accompany it. A reader is able to nod in agreement and appreciate the genuineness of Mitchard's uncanny representation of human emotion felt by Beth Cappadora. After the initial action, the sickening frenzy of the kidnapping and its immediate aftermath, the pace of the story slows to a crawl, instilling in the reader a stale, restless, cabin-feverish feeling. While this part of the story may leave a bad taste in a reader's mouth, it can also be recognized as a stylistic gift, as we realize that Mitchard has succeeded in creating the very sensation being experienced by Beth, shut up in her house and her lack of hope and motivation.
Mitchard exhibits the gift of creating characters her readers can have a relationship with. Whether we are shaking our heads with disappointment at Beth's passivity and hopelessness?"Ben is dead. He's dead. If he wasn't, I would know it" (Mitchard 229)?or brushing away a tear for Vincent's constant fear and self-blame hidden behind a mask of teenage debauchery, we are inevitably involved in her characters.
The novel's most enduring and appealing quality that renders it a bestseller is its uncanny ability to portray a life that anyone can believe. "The Deep End of the Ocean" is a novel people can find themselves in. The content of this novel, the sum of a parent's greatest fears about themselves and the fate of their families, is terrifying to confront, but at the same time hauntingly magnetizing. The story appeals to a culture that is morbidly obsessed with tragedy and suffering. People are intrigued and mesmerized by the negativity of the world, as indicated by prevalence of media coverage for negative rather than positive news, and the popularity of movies and TV shows involving death, tragedy, and suffering. Readers are drawn to Mitchard's tale of suffering for a number of reasons, including entertainment, the desire to feel compassion and common humanity, or perhaps as a reassurance that there is tragedy in the world that they are fortunate enough to be exempt from. "The loss of a child and its effect on the whole extended family, relatives as well as the immediate family members, is conveyed with great insight and compassion by Mitchard. Her story makes for a painful reading but it's rich in understanding" (Toronto Sun). Heartbreaking and eye opening from cover to cover, "The Deep End of the Ocean" is a story that will remain with its readers indefinitely. While Oprah and Hollywood may have given Mitchard's novel a strong push down the path of bestselling glory, her moving and engaging novel will certainly maintain its momentum by its own accord.
Mitchard, Jacquelyn. "The Deep End of the Ocean." New York: Viking Penguin, 1996.
Max, D.T. "The Oprah Effect." The New York Times: December 26, 1999.
Publisher's Weekly: April 1, 1996
Jacquelyn Mitchard's Home Page: http://www.previewport.com/authors