Saturday, June 26, 2010
House Rules -- Predictable Yet Puzzling
House Rules by Jodi Picoult
Atria Books, 2010
Jacob Hunt is a teenage boy with Asperger's syndrome. He lives with his mother, Emma, and his younger brother, Theo, in a small town in the northeastern U.S. Because any change in his routine causes problems for Jacob and his family, everything in the household revolves around his particular needs. For example, Wednesdays are yellow food days, when the family only eats foods that are yellow. Jacob hates the color orange, loose long hair and the sound of paper ripping so his family makes every effort to avoid those things, among many others. Because he’s hopeless at reading social cues or expressing himself without offending others, his mother hired a tutor to help him negotiate social situations, which has helped a little but he is still shunned at school and has no friends. It’s not all negative, however. Like many kids with AS, he’s extremely intelligent, follows all rules, has a photographic memory and cannot tell a lie.
Jacob has been fascinated with a variety of subjects in the past but his current obsession with forensic analysis seems a little extreme, even to his mother. He has a police scanner and makes uninvited visits to local crime scenes; he recreates actual crimes using his family’s belongings and makes his mother guess what happened; and he compulsively watches CrimeBusters, a CSI-like television show. But when his social skills tutor turns up dead and wrapped in Jacob’s old quilt, these typical Asperger’s syndrome characteristics become much more sinister and suspicious. All the evidence points to Jacob and the police soon charge Jacob with the girl’s murder, especially when he admits he moved her body and left clues to help them solve the case.
What happens when a teenager with Aspberger’s is thrown into jail, forced to wear an orange jumpsuit, is touched by other people, and over stimulated with loud noises and bright lights? It proves to be devastating for Jacob and causes a violent reaction that no one at the jail is equipped to handle. For his mother, Emma, the situation is a brutal reminder of the intolerance and misunderstanding that always threaten her family. For his brother, Theo, it's another indication of why nothing is normal because of Jacob. And over this small family the ultimate question looms: Did Jacob commit murder?
This story is classic Jodi Picoult: alternating chapters with different characters as narrators; legal explanations and medical conditions that complicate the situation; tense courtroom scenes; and of course, the surprise ending. But instead of feeling familiar and satisfying, telling the story the same old way seems forced and formulaic. The characters are not fresh and original but recycled bits of past characters from her previous books. And while certain details of the plot are different from past books, the story progresses in similar ways to a recognizable climax with predictable results. For example, the reader knows right off the bat that the mother is going to fall in love with either the young attorney or the seasoned detective. We also know that certain details that are important to the plot are omitted on purpose, in order to deflect us from what really happened.
So, let’s regard the “ultimate question.” You know Jacob didn’t do it, right? I don’t believe any reasonably intelligent reader of this novel won’t figure it out within about 50 pages. If you’ve read other books by Picoult, this is not really the ultimate question because the main characters in her novels NEVER commit the crime. We know early on that Jacob did not do it, but let’s ask the real ultimate question: why on earth does nobody ever ask Jacob flat out if he killed the girl? We are told that Jacob follows the rules and he never lies, he is fascinated with crime forensics and solving cases, and he respects the police, but the logical question to ask never gets asked. By anyone. Which drove me crazy.
If the book is predictable, formulaic, and familiar, why read it? Because Picoult can still tell a good story even if I already know the ending. Well, some of the ending. I have to admit that while I knew that Jacob didn’t do it, but I didn’t really know who did do it and I had to finish the book to find that out. Also, the characters may be recycled from other books but that doesn’t mean they aren’t likeable and sympathetic. I worried about them, most of them anyway, and I wanted things to wind up okay for them even if I did roll my eyes at every font change.
Other books by this author:
House Rules (2010)
Handle with Care (2009)
Change of Heart (2008)
Wonder Woman: Love and Murder (2007)
Nineteen Minutes (2007)
The Tenth Circle (2006)
Vanishing Acts (2005)
My Sister's Keeper (2004)
Second Glance (2003)
Perfect Match (2002)
Salem Falls (2001) -- Still my favorite Picoult book!
Plain Truth (1999)
Keeping Faith (1999)
The Pact (1998)
Picture Perfect (1995)
Harvesting the Heart (1993)
Songs of the Humpback Whale (1992)
If you like Jodi Picoult, here are some other authors you may like: