Overall Impression: Thought-provoking, engaging and entertaining.
Somehow over the years I have acquired quite a few Jodi Picoult books. I never actually buy them myself; it’s like there’s some some kind of weird magnetic force that wills them towards me free will be damned. This puzzles me somewhat because they’re not my normal type of books. Vampires? Nope. Dragons? Nuh-uh. Wizards? NO WIZARDS, SERIOUSLY.
But, the world is conspiring against me and obviously feels I need more Picoult in my life. Whenever I pick up this author’s books it’s always with an element of trepidation, because while they’re often full of complex moral dilemma’s and tragedy, they can sometimes also be slow going, repetitive and unsatisfying. I’m glad to say House Rules fit better into the former category, so maybe the universe is right after all! So, I bet you’d like some blurbity, blurb? Your wish is my command. 🙂
When Emma Hunt’s son is diagnosed with Asperger’s, she knows she will do anything to help him.
She expects other people not to understand.
She expects the stares and whispers.
She even expects trouble with the police.
But she doesn’t expect Jacob to be charged with murder.
And when all the hallmarks of your son’s condition – his tics, his inappropriate actions, his inability to look you in the eye – can be read as guilt; when you cannot put your hand on your heart and swear he is innocent…
How can you expect to help your child then?
One thing you can always expect from Jodi Picoult is a quality well researched story that pushes moral boundaries, and House Rules was no exception. Not only does this book deal with the everyday problems that come with coping with someone who has Asperger syndrome, a developmental disorder characterised by difficulty with social interaction, repetitive behaviours and limited interests, it also throws in a broken marriage, a murder trial and a not so subtle critique of the legal system. Whew. Add all those elements up and you’ve got quite a clever little story on your hands!
Picoult’s writing lends itself so well to this genre, it’s authoritative and engaging but easy to read and it never ceases to amaze me how she writes about serious topics in such an accessible way. I have so much respect for the research she puts into her work because it means even if the story isn’t immediately gripping I can still admire her ability to raise awareness of a topic or condition. While there’s nothing overly exciting, quirky or unusual about Picoult’s writing, its simplicity and functionality seems more in line with the kind of stories she likes to tell, and I think anything else would feel out of place. Although this can sometimes make her writing feel a little bland, there is enough emotional investment to keep the reader flicking through the pages!
The plot of House Rules is slow moving and the structure is similar to Picoult’s other novels but still fun to read. It’s a long for a book of its genre, stacking up at 603 pages and a lot of that is taken up by characters pondering whether Jacob could be capable of murder and worrying about the upcoming trial. Because of this, the story became repetitive in places, especially when it continued to go over and over the symptoms of Jacob’s disorder. Yet the plot didn’t drag and I found myself racing through House Rules; some chapters were long while others were only a page and a half which I think aided the pacing. While I had a pretty clear idea of ‘who dunnit’ within the first third of the book and was pretty sure where they story was going, I still enjoyed it because the novel pondered interesting issues. How do you defend your child if you think they’re guilty of a horrendous crime? Are those mentally, physically or developmentally disadvantaged likely to be misrepresented or unfairly judged in court? What does the definition of legal insanity actually mean and should it be reformed? All interesting questions I was left pondering long after I had finished the novel!
Now, I can’t talk about House Rules without touching on one of the most important aspects of it, the portrayal of Asperger Syndrome. I’ve always had a particular interest in this area of psychology and love learning about it from both scientific and fictional perspectives! In fact, it’s probably one of the reasons I enjoyed this book so much. But I have to say, I am a little torn about Picoult’s portrayal of it. On the one hand she brings up some brilliant points about how in some cases autistic individuals’ literal views of the world appear to make more sense than our baffling complex system of unwritten rules, and she also does a great job of covering the complexities of living with autism, the over-sensitivity to sensory information like texture and sound, the desperate fight to keep everything in order and scheduled, problems interpreting social cues, however, it does feel as if she tried to squish in every single ‘typical’ autism trait known to man, to the point where Jacob is almost in danger of becoming a caricature. It also kind of felt like she merged the traits of autism and Aspergers together so that although Jacob was supposed to be ‘high functioning’ he didn’t appear come across that way. Additionally, at points the story felt SO doom and gloom in its portrayal of the disorder, as if Jacob would never have a chance in life, that he was a horrible burden for his family to bear which was just awful. Granted, this book deals with a murder trial so it’s not exactly a normal situation with normal thought processes, but I felt like this needed to be balanced out with some good stuff too!
The characters in House Rules were all interesting an engaging. There’s Emma, Jacobs mother who is torn between protecting her son and doing the right thing, simultaneously believing in his innocence and fearing his guilt. Her struggle was both interesting and heartbreaking to read and I loved how the author integrated Emma’s advice column into the book for a bit of light relief. Then there’s Theo, who resents his brother Jacob for always taking centre stage, for making his father leave and for preventing him from doing all the ‘normal’ things a teen gets to do because of the money needed for medical bills. His outlook was both understandable and frustrating at times, although I do think the idea that he couldn’t make friends because he had an autistic brother was a bit over the top and unbelievable. On the legal side we have Rich the police officer, who is well meaning and kind but ignorant and Oliver, the newbie easygoing lawyer who is thrown in the deep end and becomes invested in the families struggles going above his call of duty. Plus, bonus points to Picoult for giving the lawyer a miniature poodle named Thor. Brilliant!
Finally we have the star of the show Jacob, who I loved as a character. He has a fascination with forensics and is obsessed with crime scenes, often making up pretend ones for his mother to solve. His favourite show is Crimewatch which he watches religiously every day writing details down in his notebook – which obviously looks pretty bad when you’re suspected of murder! I think Picoult did a great job of both highlighting his Asperger traits but also making sure he had a unique, likeable personality which is so important.
Overall, House Rules was a really interesting book. Although slow at points, it makes up for it by using rounded characters to tackle interesting topics. I’d recommend it to anyone looking for a thought-provoking read or for those who have an interest in Asperger syndrome and the workings of the legal system. This is well and truly an issue book, so if the topic interests you, you’ll probably love it! Suitable for anyone 15+. 🙂
Writing Style: 3/5
Character Development: 4/5
Would I recommend this book? Yes.