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House Rules

In “House Rules,” Jodi Picoult explores the complex world of Emma Hunt, who is almost entirely focused on helping her eighteen-year-old son, Jacob, learn to communicate appropriately with his family and peers. This is a Herculean task, considering the fact that Jacob has Asperger’s syndrome, a disorder characterized by a compulsive attachment to order and routine, a tendency to take comments literally, hypersensitivity to bright lights, human touch, and scratchy fabrics, a reluctance to make eye contact, lack of empathy, painful bluntness, and difficulty relating to others. Emma’s life is complicated by the fact that her husband, Henry, left shortly after their younger son, Theo, was born. Fifteen-year-old Theo deeply resents the amount of time and money that his mother lavishes on his older brother. At great expense, Emma brought early intervention therapists into her home who were “intent on dragging [Jacob] out of his own little world.” She also buys costly medicines, supplements, and special foods that, she insists, help regulate Jacob’s behavior. In addition to his other quirks, Jacob is obsessed with forensics. He watches a television show called Crimebusters and keeps a detailed journal of each episode; he even shows up at real crime scenes and offers to “help” the detectives solve their cases. Much to Emma’s chagrin, he regularly stages his own mock crime scenes at home, using corn syrup to simulate blood. His preoccupation with true crime becomes an issue when someone he had recently quarreled with is found dead. Eventually, evidence comes to light pointing to Jacob’s guilt. Could something have happened that caused him to snap? It would not be the first time that he lashed out after someone provoked him. After Jacob is arrested, in desperation Emma chooses an inexperienced lawyer named Oliver Bond to represent her son. Bond will have to pull a few rabbits out of his hat to earn sympathy for his idiosyncratic client. The central characters all have imperfections. Emma, who is disconcerted by the curveballs life keeps throwing her way, never gives into despair. Still, her preoccupation with Jacob shortchanges Theo, who feels neglected and unloved. Jacob is a smart yet very troubled young man who will need a miracle to get out of the mess he has helped create. He is aware enough, however, to realize that people think of him as “the weird kid who stands too close and doesn’t shut up.” Theo is a rebellious and angry teenager who acts out in frustration because he is burdened with a sibling who acts like “a total nutcase.” Oliver is a kindhearted twenty-eight year old attorney whose lack of familiarity with criminal law may prove costly. Jess Ogilvy is Jacob’s compassionate and sensitive tutor, whose job it is to teach him social skills, such as how to make small talk and the importance of looking people in the eye. Yet she is foolish enough to stay with her boyfriend, Mark, an aggressive boor who cruelly teases Jacob. Picoult effectively conveys the anguish of a single parent who invests almost all of her energy trying to give her son a chance to enjoy a fulfilling life. But the price that she pays is steep, not just financially, but emotionally. Emma has few pleasures, no vacations, and no luxuries; her younger son must settle for whatever time and attention she can spare. We cannot help but empathize with this family in distress. Picoult’s narrative device of allowing each character to convey his or her thoughts in alternating chapters works well. In spite of its length (over five hundred pages), the story moves along briskly and is helped immeasurably by sharply written dialogue and liberal doses of humor. “House Rules” has lively courtroom theatrics and a dash of romance. Although the plot has gaping holes (including an enormous coincidence that makes it difficult to suspend our disbelief) as well as a bit too much sermonizing, Picoult wisely avoid overdosing on melodrama and sentiment. She drives home a theme that is close to her heart: Family members may occasionally loathe one another, but it is well worth the effort to make peace. This is an engaging, entertaining, moving, and at times, eloquent work of fiction that will appeal to fans of Mark Haddon’s “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.”

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