Recently, NPR recommended five books from the bestsellers of the previous six months, and on that recommendation, I decided to read House Rules by Jodi Picoult. I enjoy reading books in clusters – books about WWII, books about informed consent, etc – and Asperger’s Syndrome (AS) has been a theme of my summertime reading. In Picoult’s novel, Jacob, an eighteen year-old-boy, diagnosed with AS, has a razor-like focus on criminal forensics. He watches the fictional CrimeBusters (a nod to CSI) reruns daily and keeps detailed notebooks of the cases; he subscribes to academic journals on forensic science; and with the help of a police scanner, goes to crime scenes where sometimes his advice, though unwelcome, gives investigators the perspective they need. However, when Jacob’s social skills tutor, Jessica Ogilvy, is reported missing, and then later found dead, Jacob is arrested for the murder. His Aspergian traits – flat affect, self-centeredness, single-minded focus on one topic, the need for a strict adherence to a set schedule, twitches (stimming), lack of eye contact, aversion to touch, and meltdowns – are read by many, including his family, as indication of guilt. (As far as I can tell from previous reading, Picoult is fair in her representation of AS; in her acknowledgements, she mentions that an AS teenager read a draft of the novel and gave her feedback, of course, in a frank and unflinching manner.)
The premise of the novel was intriguing to me, and, as I mentioned, Picoult was fairhanded (yet perhaps too pedantic) in describing AS. However, the execution was disappointing. First, I found the five main characters – Jacob, Emma, Theo, Oliver, and Rich – to be fairly unsympathetic. This did make me think quite a bit. I found it ironic that I had so little empathy for the characters, especially since a lack of empathy is characteristic of AS. I wondered if this was deliberate, so we could feel more of Jacob’s world, or if it was sloppy writing that made the characters unidimensional. I don’t have children, much less a child on the autism spectrum, but I found myself feeling sorry for Theo, Jacob’s younger brother, who is forgotten in the wake of Jacob’s needs. Emma, their (single) mother, seems unaware or unconcerned about Theo. This may be the way it is for families who have a member with AS, but it struck me as unfair. Second, each of the five characters has chapters corresponding to their points of view – and each of them had a unique font! I found this gimmicky and distracting. (An aside: I just started reading another book on NPR’s list, The Lake Shore Limited, and while I haven’t read much, I noticed it has the same structure: alternating chapters by character. Is this about the NPR list or about today’s novels?) Each of the ten sections of the novel was introduced by a Case History – a crime solved using innovative forensic methods, with the final of the Case Histories discussing Jessica’s death. I found this slightly gimmicky, too, but less distracting than the different fonts. Third, given the title of the book “House Rules” and the tendency of people with AS to obey rules, the mystery of the story is fairly obvious, though I was curious about how it would be revealed.
Despite my criticisms, this is a quick, engrossing read – good for the beach or a flight, though I’d wait until the book comes out in paperback.