Jodi Picoult continues to gain recognition as a bestselling novelist with notoriety brought by both made-for-television versions of her work and a recent big screen adaptation of her novel, MY SISTER’S KEEPER. With the release of her latest book, HOUSE RULES, she may have created her best and most controversial work to date.
Eighteen-year-old Jacob Hunt is a highly-functioning teenage boy who suffers from a form of autism known as Asperger’s Syndrome. He realizes he is in good company as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Albert Einstein, Andy Warhol, Jane Austen and Thomas Jefferson all had Asperger’s. He is far more functional than the Dustin Hoffman character in Rain Man, but he does share some similar traits: sticking to a regular schedule and not veering from it, obsession with colors and organization, and difficulty in maintaining a relationship.
Jacob’s mother, Emma, writes a syndicated advice column --- “Ask Auntie Em” --- and his younger brother, Theo, attends the same high school. Picoult devotes each chapter to one of the various characters who are featured in HOUSE RULES. Early in the book, Theo recognizes that he is supposed to make exceptions for Jacob (it’s one of the unwritten house rules). Similar to John Irving’s CIDER HOUSE RULES, the Hunt family actually has their own set of rules all based on respecting Jacob’s special needs and keeping things as normal as they possibly can. Jacob and Theo’s father, Henry, ran off when they were very young, and he has since remarried and raised a new family in California --- far from the Vermont home Emma has struggled to keep together.
Jacob has a genius IQ and possesses knowledge of random facts and a wealth of movie quotations. Another one of his obsessions is forensic science, brought about by his daily viewing of the television show “Crime Busters.” He keeps a police scanner in his room and often invades crime scenes to share his own hypothesis of the situation. When he shows up at a late-night scene in which the police are examining a frozen corpse, he is captured and put in front of the lead detective, Rich Matson. Jacob insists he is a civilian with a better understanding of forensic science than the local police.
Emma and Theo continue to struggle daily with Jacob and his quirks. Theo wonders why being different gets you a free pass in life. He finds a way to rebel from the lack of attention he gets at home by following his own obsession --- breaking into local homes and occasionally walking off with items like iPods and video games. As a senior in high school, Jacob must interact more than ever before. As a result, Emma hires a college student named Jess to become his social skills coach and she actually has some minor success. People with Asperger’s have trouble with normal interactions, and their conversations are often one-sided. They are unable to read social cues or body language and often cannot identify the feelings of those around them. Therefore, Jess knows she has her hands full with Jacob.
She takes him out for a night of social interaction at a local pizzeria. Unfortunately, for Jacob, Jess brings along her boyfriend, Mark, who Jacob cannot stand. Jacob also suspects that Mark may be abusing Jess physically, so he is on his guard around him. An argument erupts as Mark becomes unnecessarily jealous of the time Jess spends with Jacob, and the two of them leave the pizzeria in a huff --- abandoning Jacob in the process. It is much to Jacob’s surprise when news comes out that Jess has gone missing and Mark is the lead suspect.
In shocking fashion, the police discover Jess’s body positioned in an odd manner in the snow behind the house she was staying in. Mark is initially brought in and questioned, but the focus soon shifts to Jacob --- as Jess’s body was found wrapped in a quilt from Jacob’s closet. Mark is released, and Jacob is taken in by Detective Matson and eventually charged with the murder of his tutor. Emma, not knowing what to do, hires a local defense attorney named Oliver Bond. Oliver has very little experience but recognizes the magnitude of the case and sees an opportunity to make a name for himself.
The remainder of the novel focuses on the trial and all the challenges presented by putting a teen with Asperger’s in an unfamiliar and potentially hostile environment. Jacob admits to setting up the “crime scene” that involved Jess’s body and is forthcoming about how he did this. However, he is never asked directly by his attorney or even his mother if he was actually responsible for her death. Emma is in a state of denial, and Oliver has his work cut out not only in defending a client against overwhelming evidence but also preparing the client’s mother for the prospect that her son may spend the rest of his life in a prison or home for the criminally insane.
There are some twists and turns as HOUSE RULES tells the story of this landmark criminal case. Shrewd fans of mystery novels should be able to figure things out before the stunning climax --- but this in no way takes away from the reading experience. Novelist and American icon Stephen King has been quoted as stating: “You men out there who think Ms. Picoult is a chick thing need to get with the program. Her books are an everyone thing…” I couldn’t agree more and hope that HOUSE RULES brings her an even wider audience.
Reviewed by Ray Palen on January 22, 2011