Thursday, November 11, 2010

House Rules

I've heard a lot of talk about Jodi Picoult's newest novel, House Rules. I found myself to be particularly interested in this novel because of its subject matter: Aspberger's Syndrome. I was interested to see how she presented the characters and what conflicts they would encounter (besides the obvious conflict of living with the disability). However, like many of her novels, I found myself hooked to the story and connected to the characters. This, among others of hers, is another good title to recommend.

Picoult, one again, writes from multiple character perspectives. I thought this would be considerably challenging since one of the characters has Aspberger's Syndrome, a milder form of Autism. Picoult must have done much research to not only understand the disoder but to accurately speak from their point of view. I would find this to be very challenging. It's one thing to understand what Aspberger's is, know the behaviors, and interact with those with it, but I couldn't imagine writing from their perspective. I'm not saying this in a negative way at all. I'm simply presenting the idea that she is very talented to convey something that is so mysterious, cryptic, and misunderstood by so many in this country.

Like most of her novels do, Picoult brings about controversial or misunderstood topics to the forefront and makes people aware of it. She makes people take a stance on the issue and/or discuss it with a larger group of people. Autism has growing awareness, yet it's not something that everybody is very familiar with. It's something that people are aware of if it directly effects them. Otherwise, it can be some distant term that isn't generally understood. Autism itself comes with its controversy as well. Many people speculate as to its causes, be it from mercury poisoning in shots or a general biological disorder. Mothers swear it comes from shots and that gluten-free diets are a sure way to stave off the side effects. But, the medical world is slow to jump on this bandwagon. This, I am sure, is one reason that Picoult wrote about this subject. Her novel is causing more discussion and perhaps is bringing more people and communities to become cognizant of Autism and discuss the disorder and its controversies.

But, I digress. Back to the novel itself.

I liked that the novel included a character with Aspberger's Syndrome, but that wasn't what the entire book was about. A common trait among those with Aspberger's is an obsession with a specific topic. The character in House Rules, Jacob, has a fixation with crime and forensics. He sees crime scenes almost as a puzzle that he must solve. He studies old cases, detectives, and crime shows to become an "expert" on the subject. Like many with Aspberger's, Jacob is brilliant, and he is like a savant in his abilities to fit the pieces together.

The central conflict of the novel revolves around Jacob's fascination. It will eventually lead him to trouble. He shows up at crime scenes, hoping to help solve them. His mother gave him a police radio which helps him arrive at these scenes. But, Jacob does not have social graces granted to your average person. He does not understand that this may come off as creepy or suspicious. He has a lot of characteristics that a guilty criminal might have as well: he can't look in people's eyes, he has nervous twitches, he can't hold a normal conversation, he focuses the conversation solely around himself, etc. The police department becomes aware of who he is once he starts "crashing in" on crime scenes.

Meanwhile, Jacob is taking social skills lessons with a college student named Jess. Jess has a boyfriend named Mark who Jacob completely despises. Jacob, even though he is disgusted by most sexual encounters, finds himself attracted to Jess and asks her on a date in front of Mark at a pizza shop, at one of their sessions. Jacob does not understand how offensive this is (part of his lack of social understanding). Mark gets very angry, yells, and storms out of the pizza shop. Jess is so angry at Jacob, especially since he continues to ask her out once this has occurred, she tells him to "get lost," and she storms out. Jacob knows that he can't "get lost," since he takes language very literally, and decides that he will still go to their next session.

Jacob lives at home with his mother, Emma, and his younger brother, Theo. Their father ran off, understanding that his life would be significantly different with a child with Aspberger's. The interesting thing is that he is somewhere on the spectrum himself.

The main conflict truly arrives when Jess goes missing. It is later discovered that she is murdered. When they discover her body, Jess is wrapped in Jacob's childhood quilt. Emma calls the police station with this information, and Jacob is questioned by Rich Matson, lead detective. Jacob does not lie. He admits that he was there and moved her body, so he becomes the leading suspect in the case. Throughout the novel, the reader wonders if he did in fact commit the crime. Evidence goes both ways, and Jacob's cryptic language makes the reader question whether he is capable to commit such a crime. The reader does not find out until the very end what the truth is.

Once Jacob is put into jail as a suspect, Emma finds a local attorney, Oliver Bond, who has just passed his BAR exam. He is very young and inexperienced. He is not really sure how to be a lawyer, but tries to pretend that he knows. Emma does not have a lot of money to pay him anyway, so they are both kind of winging the experience. Oliver calls for a suppression hearing since Jacob was not truly granted his Miranda Rights. They have to prove that he truly did not understand that what he said could incriminate him. The court decides that evidence used during that crucial interview with Rich could not be used. Jacob (since he was deteriorating in jail) can stay at home under house arrest.

The rest, or most, of the novel takes place in court during the trial. I am finding that many of Picoult's novels take place in court as they use a legal means to sort out these controversial topics she brings up. As the trial unfolds, Emma and Oliver get closer and closer, eventually developing a sexual and romantic relationship.

Theo, the younger brother, takes all of this very hard. In his perspective, we learn how troubling it is for him to deal with having a brother who others call "retarded." He is a loner because of his association with his brother. He knows that he will eventually have to take care of his brother, and this scares him. He feels that his life has always been controlled by his brother and his needs. Jacob always comes first, and Theo always comes second because his needs are less.

Because Theo is dealing with this hard material, he lashes out in other ways. He breaks into local homes and hangs out in their houses, trying to see what it feels like to be normal and live in a "normal" house. He steals materials to see if people will notice. He takes games and iPods and other expensive gifts that his family cannot afford. During the trial, Theo hops a plane to California to go see his father who abandoned the family when Theo was an infant. Emma is forced to fly out there, even with the little money they have, and this is when their father discovers Jacob's murder trial. He eventually comes out there with them to be there during the trial.

The end was intense... SPOILER ALERT...

It is finally revealed that Jacob did not commit the murder. Even though Jacob takes the stand, he never tells what really happened. He never says that he didn't do it. This makes no sense to me, but I will move on. When the jury is deliberating, the truth comes out when Theo is opening his birthday presents. Jacob never gives presents, but he gives Theo a stuffed animal with something tucked inside. An iPod is inside, and Jess's name is etched into the back. Jacob says something like, "Didn't you want this? Isn't that why you were there?" It is then revealed that Theo was at Jess's house the day of her murder. He was spying on her in the shower. She saw him, panicked, slipped and fell. She knocked her head on the sink's edge and bled to death. Scared shitless, Theo runs away. Jacob arrives at the scene, realizes a house rule (always protect and care for your brother), so he cleans up the mess, moves the body, and creates a fake crime scene. Jacob did not kill her. The death was accidental.

The ending isn't 100% clear. Throughout the novel, Jacob describes past crime cases that were solved, like Ted Bundy's story for example. I thought it was clever to end the novel with this new case, Jacob's case. Jacob tells it from the future and how people saw the case after its conclusion. Apparently this new evidence was brought to the court, and I am assuming that Jacob was aquitted of the charges. This case makes forensic history along with the other stories that Jacob told all along. Hm.

Even though I kept reading to find out what happened, I was very frustrated that the truth didn't come out sooner. There were so many instances where the truth should have come out, but it never did. If I was in the story, I don't see why I wouldn't sit down with him and ask him every detail that I possibly could, even if I didn't want to hear the answer. Maybe you don't want to believe that your son, brother, or friend committed murder, but wouldn't it kill you to know the truth? Why would you want to believe a lie? Don't be selfish. I wouldn't want to be naive. It bothered me that no one ever asked him these crucial questions, and it only came about after the fact in a random situation. Very frustrating!!


However, this novel was a great way to learn about Aspberger's and Autism if you don't know too much about it. I think it's better than reading a nonfiction piece that reads like a textbook. Not only do you get to hear Jacob's perspective and see his behaviors, you get to hear how it's like to live with someone with this disorder, from the family members, but you also hear from experts during the trial to provide more thorough, "scientific" information. Overall, it was well-rounded in that respect.

The story was engaging, and the characters were dynamic, as always. Especially if you are intested in forensics, this novel would hook you. I enjoyed reading about random forensic facts and crime cases. Some were eerie, but they were a nice break from the trial at times.

Picoult writes another good one again. I would put this as one of her best, along with The Pact and Nineteen Minutes (and maybe The Tenth Circle). So far, those are my favorites of hers.

So, what do you think of House Rules?


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