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Book Review

Picoult keys on a teen with Asperger’s

Jodi Picoult uses five characters to tell her story. Jodi Picoult uses five characters to tell her story. (Gasper Tringale)
By Karen Campbell
March 4, 2010

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Jacob Hunt is startlingly verbal and blisteringly intelligent. The 18-year-old has an uncanny ability to retain facts and figures and can take apart a broken microwave and fix it inside of an hour. He can also analyze a crime scene with remarkable accuracy and speed. What he can’t do is read social cues, make eye contact, and sense what another person is feeling. He lives in a literal world, unable to read between the lines, and he thrives on rules and closely monitored routines, becoming easily over-stimulated by touch, lights, sounds, smells, even textures.

Jacob has Asperger’s syndrome, a neurological disorder on the autism spectrum, and as the main character of Jodi Picoult’s new novel, “House Rules,’’ he offers a fascinating and informative glimpse into a condition that has become common - affecting as many as 1.5 million Americans - yet is little understood.

However, the beauty of Picoult’s book, as in most of her topical bestsellers, is that it brings to vivid life not just Jacob’s condition, but the impact it has on those around him. “House Rules’’ is told through the alternating voices of Jacob; his mother, Emma; his 15-year-old brother, Theo; and two characters pulled into their world when Jacob’s social-skills tutor Jess is found dead and Jacob becomes the primary suspect. Oliver is the inexperienced but passionate young attorney Emma hires to defend her son. Rich is the arresting officer, who initially assumes Jacob’s odd behavior, including his fascination with crime scenes, must be a sign of guilt.

When Jacob is charged with Jess’s murder, “House Rules’’ begins to unfold as a compelling and suspenseful whodunit, as the trial slowly uncovers what really happened. But along the way, Picoult beautifully evokes the tribulations of living with Asperger’s. Emma’s entries chart the exhausting daily struggles of a single mother dealing with the overwhelming demands of a child with special needs who can never connect emotionally: “A son who tries to be like everyone else but truly doesn’t know how.’’ She also deftly addresses the controversy over vaccines as a possible cause, presenting findings on both sides of the issue as well as her own carefully reasoned conclusion.

But the most engaging and heartbreaking voice in the novel is little brother Theo, who perennially feels like a freak by association. Though he loves and supports his brother, he admits to secretly hoping that Jacob will wander off and never be found so he can get on with his life, and Theo’s penchant for risky behavior adds an extra layer of ambiguity to the story.

Picoult strains credulity in spots. The requisite romantic entanglement is just a little too cute and convenient. It’s also unrealistic that a mother would turn in her son to the police without talking to him about her suspicions - the book’s major flaw is that no one directly asks Jacob what exactly happened the day Jess died, which is inexplicable given the literal-minded Jacob’s need to always tell the truth. This huge omission leaves savvy readers a clear clue to the mystery’s end. But “House Rules’’ is a page-turner nonetheless, well-paced and thoughtful. And it certainly leaves readers with more compassion and understanding for sufferers of a condition that puts them always on the outside without a way in.

Karen Campbell is a freelance writer based in Brookline.

HOUSE RULES By Jodi Picoult

Atria, 544 pp., $28