I'm hooked on Jodi Picoult, whom I discovered only recently (yes, I was living in a cave). I haven't yet worked my way through all of her previous 13 novels (four down, nine to go), but I've read enough to know that her work is consistently intelligent, reliably moving and irresistibly readable.
This is not to say that it's lighthearted. If you are a person of a certain age, you will remember how made-for-television movies (the network kind) used to popularize diseases such as anorexia, crimes such as domestic violence and incest, and all manner of ethical dilemmas. Films of this ilk now survive mainly on LIFETIME, but the need for catharsis --- to dramatize, relive and try to make sense of a shocking and tragic event --- is still very much with us, and that's where Picoult comes in. She takes the most difficult, ambiguous questions --- Is it ever right to kidnap your own child? Does a kid have to donate body parts to her grievously ill sister? When a dying spouse asks you to kill her, should you do it? --- and animates them with a wonderful cast of characters, almost always flawed, attractive, small-town folks who are struggling to do the right thing.
Picoult's version, in contrast, is rooted right smack in the soil of ordinary Technicolor life. One reason her novels have such immediacy is that she deals not in psychopaths and rebels but people well within the range of normal, or so it seems. She imagines something bizarre and awful happening to the family next door, the family that could be hers, or mine, or yours. She seems willing to take on horrific moral conundrums without flinching or evasion. She doesn't just touch on an issue --- she probes it and stomps it and turns it inside out. And her novels almost always end in a trial sequence that forces the characters to come to terms with their reality, giving her work a satisfying "Law & Order"-style symmetry.
The title NINETEEN MINUTES refers to how long it takes the shooter, Peter Houghton, to complete a bloody rampage through his New Hampshire high school: "In nineteen minutes," Picoult writes, "you can order a pizza and get it delivered. You can read a story to a child or have your oil changed. You can walk a mile. You can sew a hem. In nineteen minutes, you can stop the world, or you can just jump off it. In nineteen minutes, you can get revenge." There is no pussyfooting around. She begins the book on the day of the massacre, when we barely know any of the people involved (though Patrick DuCharme, the detective who is one of the first on the scene, is a carryover character from one of her earlier books, PERFECT MATCH). This isn't a conventional suspense novel in the sense that there is no murkiness about what happened or who did it; the really enormous mystery is why.
To answer that, Picoult needs to let the reader in on the facts of the past without losing her grip on the drama of the present, and she pulls it off with a cinematically orchestrated narrative that counterpoints the current investigation and trial with a series of vivid flashbacks. She focuses mainly on two families: the parents of the shooter, Lacy and Lewis Houghton; and Alex Cormier, a public defender turned judge whose daughter, Josie, a former friend of Peter (one of the few kids who had anything to do with him), was a key witness to the slaughter.
This subject is a natural for Picoult, who has always seemed particularly interested in parental love. It is the tendency of our culture to favor nurture over nature, holding parents responsible for the way a child turns out, good or bad. What greater test, then, of what a mother or father has done --- or failed to do --- than a son who commits mass murder? And what greater tragedy than to have a beloved teenage child shot down or traumatized before he or she has had a chance at life? Picoult gets inside the heads of parents on both sides of this divide; she is unremittingly fair, which is how this book manages to dwell mainly in the gray areas of the issue, neither condemning Peter and his parents nor letting them off the hook.
Some readers may object that the shooter is too sympathetic. We root for Peter partly because of his nice-guy defense counsel, Jordan McAfee (also a carryover from previous novels), but mostly because of the book's persuasive portrait of the brutality of high school life. Peter is the perennial misfit who has been cruelly bullied since his first day in school, but bullying is really too petty-sounding a word for the tortures the popular kids put him through; sadism is more like it. And bullying is a close relative of other sorts of abuse, as Josie, wounded in the melee, finds out. She has gone from an outsider to an insider, thanks to her status as the girlfriend of Matt Royston, the school's star hockey player. But this "promotion" has its costs --- and, eventually, desperate consequences for her, Peter and Matt himself.
Is the book too formulaic? Well, you can't write 14 bestsellers without getting a bit predictable: the pat sign-offs at the end of each section, the melodramatic trial scenes, the redemptive romance at the end. Picoult could be a little more subtle and risk-taking --- but she couldn't be more likable, honest and heartfelt. There's no one else with whom I'd rather sit down and thrash out an issue that has no easy answer.
Reviewed by Kathy Weissman on March 5, 2007