House Rules

By Jodi Picoult

Atria Books. 544 pp. $28

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Reviewed by Christine Ma


Jodi Picoult fans won't be disappointed in her new novel, House Rules, which will be published on March 2. It's a page-turner with much to say about oft-misunderstood Asperger's syndrome.

Picoult is talented at taking up controversial topics, often looking at how parents and families react when children's lives are at stake. In Nineteen Minutes, Picoult covered the aftermath of a small-town school shooting, in which parents of both the victims and the shooter must pick up the pieces. My Sister's Keeper, the basis for last year's movie by the same name, follows a young girl who sues her parents to stop them from using her body parts to save her ill sister.

In House Rules, Emma Hunt is the single mother of 18-year-old Jacob, who has Asperger's, and 15-year-old Theo.

If you don't know what Asperger's is, you will by the time you put down this book. It's a form of autism, but not the Rain Man sort. Jacob says:

I may be autistic, but I can't tell you what day of the week your mother's thirty-second birthday fell on. I can't do logarithms in my head. I can't look at a patch of sod and tell you it has 6,446 individual blades of grass. On the other hand . . . I memorized the periodic table without even trying; I taught myself how to read Middle Egyptian; and I helped my calculus teacher fix his computer.

People with Asperger's lack social skills and empathy, and they can see only how their actions affect themselves. Young Theo fears a monster is going to attack him while he sleeps. One day, Emma wakes up to find that Jacob has spent the night sleeping in front of the door to Theo's room. She mistakes his action for empathy. In reality, Jacob explains, he did it "because I was exhausted after a week of midnight crying, and I only wanted to get a good night's rest. I was looking out for my own best interests."

Emma attempts to give Jacob as normal a life as possible, a difficult task because he depends on routines. He must watch his favorite TV show, CrimeBusters, every afternoon at 4:30. His clothes must be hung in rainbow-color order, and the hangers must not touch. Every weekday is assigned a color, and all the foods that day must be that color. Wednesdays are yellow. That means omelets, pineapple, cornbread, and yellow cake. No spinach, no tomatoes, no blueberries.

Straying from routines causes Jacob to have a meltdown, which Emma seeks to avoid. "Jacob looks like a totally normal young man. He's clearly intelligent," she says. "But having his day disrupted probably makes him feel the same way I would if I was suddenly told to bungee off the top of the Sears Tower."

A fan of forensics, Jacob has a hobby of setting up crime scenes for his mother to solve. That fascination is what eventually leads him into trouble. His tutor, Jess, is found dead one day, and Jacob was the last person to see her. He is arrested and must stand trial in her murder.

As in some of Picoult's other books, her main characters - Emma, Jacob, Theo, Oliver, and Rich - take turns telling the story. Theo has grown up in Jacob's shadow, and he wishes his life were different. To cope, he breaks into the homes of "normal" families because he yearns to be a part of their lives. Oliver is the young lawyer fresh out of school who has never before taken part in a criminal trial but now holds Jacob's fate in his hands.

Rich, the police detective who arrests Jacob, employs questionable tactics when he questions him. He uses Jacob's love of forensics to obtain a taped statement about his role in Jess' death and to get his fingerprints.

This shifting point of view creates a compelling read, though the characters' revelations and thoughts may lead readers to foresee how the trial will end.

Despite the predictable conclusion, readers will still take away much from the book to keep them thinking. They'll realize how Asperger's affects people mentally and socially. They'll experience the taunts and jeers from Jacob's peers at school - which may in turn prompt readers to ensure that their own children learn tolerance.

Picoult's portrait of Jacob is successful - but is it really likely that a person with Asperger's could be articulate enough to narrate his own world? Or is Jacob just a way to move the story along? People with Asperger's aren't supposed to be able to empathize with others, but Jacob sometimes seems to understand how his mother or brother or other characters feel. We do see him progress in his tutoring sessions with Jess, so increasing articulateness seems in keeping.

House Rules also raises the issue of law enforcement handling of people like Jacob, who require special accommodations during interrogation and custody. Especially trenchant is the question of how many innocent people have ended up in prison because the police coerced them into false confessions. At one point, when narrating his own interrogation, Jacob says, "I scramble for words, any words, because I do not want him to yell at me again. I will tell him . . . what he needs to hear, if that makes him open the door."

It doesn't help his case that "all the behaviors Jacob is exhibiting - flat affect, an inability to look him in the eye, even a flight response . . . the hallmarks of Asperger's syndrome," are also characteristics police attribute to the guilty. Rich doesn't understand. At one point during the trial, he says, "If the defendant can get some special accommodation, why not the witnesses? . . . I mean, if the court was willing to bend over backward for Jacob Hunt's Asperger's syndrome, how long will it be before this is used as a precedent by some career criminal who insists that going to jail will inflame his claustrophobia?"

Picoult has released a book almost every year since her first, Songs of the Humpback Whale, in 1992. It's too bad her fans will have to wait yet another year for her next work.

Christine Ma is a freelance writer and editor in New York. Contact her at mschristinema@yahoo.com.