Friday, March 12, 2010

Book Review: House Rules by Jodi Picoult

The House rules are pretty simple: 1) Clean up your own messes. 2) Always tell the truth. 3) Brush your teeth twice a day. 4) Don't be late for school. and 5) Take care of your brother. Jacob always follows the rules.

"House Rules" centers around a single mother, Emma Hunt (who happens to be an advice columnist for the Burlington Free Press), her eldest son Jacob (an 18 year old Asperger's austistic) and her son Theo (15 years old). Emma's entire life has revolved around helping her son cope in the world around him - yellow Wednesdays, blue Fridays and the avoidance of all things orange. To this extent Theo is largely left out by virtue of not requiring the same level of accommodation. As a typical teenager, Theo responds by breaking and entering and petty theft - which mostly goes unnoticed by Emma.

Jacob is mainstreamed in school - at the same time brilliant but also completely socially inept and incompetent. He is obsessed with forensics and as the book opens he is setting up a fake crime scene in his living room - complete with corn syrup blood. Jacob requires a social skills tutor and Emma has hired a UVM graduate student named Jess Olgavee. Under Jess' tutelage Jacob has blossomed - even progressing far enough to take a girl to prom.The character Oliver (a newly minted lawyer) is a gem, likable and warm. The Hunt case is Oliver's first and only case (and of course his first murder case).

At nearly 20 hours long, there are certainly moments where the plot drags; there were more than a few times when I was frustrated with the characters for not resolving certain plot points sooner in the story. I had solved the "whodunnit" about 7 hours into the listen and yet the book ran another 13 hours. I kept asking myself how a family could be so isolated from their entire community and yet so much more isolated from each other. I found it completely implausible that a family member could be charged with murder and yet the topic was never discussed between the characters.

Jacob's narration was particularly frustrating for me because while the other characters explained his aspergers, his inability to lie and literal interpretation of language (Are you pulling my leg? No, I'm not (physically) pulling your leg), Jacob's narration was not the same literal aspergers dialogue. The reader was expected to both believe that the character was limited and literal, yet in his own voice he was (for the most part) not at all disabled - then when the author included aspy behaviors in Jacob's voice they were beyond cliche.

However, the talent of the narrators does make up for any of the shortcomings of the individual characters. The transitions between readers (to be fair this is the author's voice as much as a credit to the narrators) are smooth and natural. I particularly enjoyed listening to Christopher Evan Welch (from The Art of Racing in the Rain) as the farrier turned starving lawyer retained to defend Jacob in his trial on charges of murder. I might have to go looking for more of his narrations just to get my "Enzo" fix.

There are several literary ticks that are just plain annoying though and this is probably more obvious in audiobook format. The characters (in all voices) are constantly listing items - more than simply listing facts, the lists are ordered and numbered: 1) Blagh, blagh 2) Blagh, blagh 3) Blagh, blagh 4) Blagh, blagh and the sub-ordered into a) Blagh, blagh b) Blagh, blagh c) Blagh, blagh. Within the first three hours of the TWENTY hour audiobook I was rolling my eyes and groaning in disgust every time one of the characters launched into an ordered list. As this was my first listen to Jodi Picoult's work I'm not sure if this is typical of all of her books or if this HIGHLY annoying tick is new to "House Rules". I probably could forgive the tick if the ordered lists were limited to the voice of Jacob (the aspergers austistic character) - but a) it was not and b) the usage was excessive and c) the ordered lists were unnecessary and d) yes, I'm mocking the literary tick and e) yes, it does make me feel a little better.

As the story is set in Vermont, I am familiar with the locations used in the book. The problem is that Ms. Picoult's use of creative geography was distracting from the believability of the rest of the story. The main characters live in Townshend, VT, which Ms Picoult insists is 8 miles from Burlington, VT - her characters are often described as walking to and from Burlington. There are several inconsistencies in the story line with characters going to dinner on Church Street in Burlington, but then returning home from Hanover (and if you lived in Townshend I highly doubt you'd just pop out to dinner in either Burlington, VT or Hanover, NH (90 minutes away). On the map to the right:
a) Hanover, NH
b) Burlington, VT
c)Townshend, VT
d)still mocking.

Overall, I do recommend reading or listening to "House Rules". It was a satisfying listen - well worth an audible credit (though I actually purchased it "on sale" the week it was released). The book does not have to be listened to in long sittings. In the afternoon I could pick up where I left off on my morning commute and then again as I rushed out to Waggles in the evening. I did have a couple of 5 hour drives (day-trips to a trial) in the middle of the book and it held my attention on the long duration listens as well.

Jodi Picoult's "House Rules" is published by Recorded Books and narrated by Mark Turetsky, Nicole Poole, Andy Paris,Rich Orlow and Christopher Evan Welch (who so expertly narrated "The Art of Racing in the Rain")."House Rules" was released on March 2, 2010 and runs 19 hours 55 minutes. House Rules is available from

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