Thursday, May 27, 2010

Picoult's newest was a forced march

Normally, when I have a new Jodi Picoult novel on my bookshelf, I am torn between whisking it into my hands and devouring it in a day or two, and leaving it there for maybe a week or more, letting the anticipation build until I can't stand it anymore and absolutely have to read it NOW. That's how it was with her newest, HOUSE RULES. I should have let it sit a while longer.

As usual, Picoult's newest story brings into focus a current topic of discussion, centering the conflict around that topic and a family in distress. There is, of course, the requisite courtroom battle meant to divide the reader's loyalty among the characters in play. The topic in HOUSE RULES is autism, Asperger's Syndrome specifically. The family is a single mom who has been raising her older son (the one with AS) and her younger son (who is "neurotypical" - in other words "normal") on her own for about fifteen years. Jacob, the older boy with Asperger's, is accused of murdering his counselor and the only hope his attorney has for acquittal is claiming insanity due to the AS.

The premise sounds interesting, doesn't it? I thought so too. As I mentioned above, I'm a loyal, diehard Picoult fan, and I looked forward to reading this book. So what was wrong with it, you ask? It's difficult to put my finger on the problem, but I'm going to try.

The first element of the book that really threw me off was the constant descriptions of what Asperger's Syndrome is, how it manifests itself, how it affects Jacob's functioning in the world, and how it affects the people closest to him. Those descriptions really never stop. Sometimes they're necessary and add to the narrative, but often they're repetitive and dry - often even clinical. Many times the book read as though Picoult simply quoted her notes from interviews she conducted with various doctors, counselors, and Asperger's patients. There were pages in the last third of the book that I practically skipped - barely skimmed - because it was the doctor's testimony about what AS is and believe me - by that point in the book, you've been there done that.

I think another issue I had was that this time - and this just never happens with her books - the characters were not very well developed. Or maybe that's not quite right. Let me say it this way: Jacob's character is very well developed. I've had students with Asperger's Syndrome, and I wish that I'd had this book to read before I had them in the classroom because I feel like I understand them so much better than I ever did before. Jacob was real and complete for me. The other characters - his mom, his brother, and his attorney specifically - seem to be developed only as far as necessary to allow them to interact with Jacob. This could have been done intentionally because living with Jacob doesn't allow anyone to have much else in his or her life. Maybe those characters felt incomplete to me because they were truly incomplete people. I'm not sure. All I know is that it didn't work for me.

The plot itself is compelling, although I knew very, very early in the story what the surprise was going to be at the end. Jacob is interesting, and it's sad to think about people having to live their lives with AS and around it. It's one of those stories that makes me grateful to God that my daughter is healthy.

This book will in no way turn me away from Jodi Picoult. She's a master storyteller, period. I am hoping that this was just a slight bump in the road that I've traveled happily - and smoothly - for years with her in her books. I was ready to put HOUSE RULES down and be done with it, but I'm just as eager to read her next one, whatever it may be.

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