I picked up Jodi Picoult’s House Rules in Phnom Penh, Cambodia to read on my 24-hour (literally) plane ride home. I didn’t get to it on the plane, so I read it while I was home for Christmas. It was a long read (my edition hit 602 pages), but a fast one, as most Picoults are.
I think I was spoiled by Picoult’s My Sister’s Keeper when I first read it at about age 14. I haven’t read it in years, but I loved it so much and read it several times as a teen. After that I picked up Nineteen Minutes, which I liked, although not as much as My Sister’s Keeper. And then it kind of went downhill: I liked Plain Truth less well, and then Sing Me Home even less and finally, I really disliked House Rules.
House Rules is about Jacob, an eighteen-year-old with Asperger’s Syndrome (a diagnosis on the autism spectrum); his single mother Emma, whose life is devoted to caring for Jacob; and his brother Theo, a 15-year-old with a propensity for breaking into houses to steal small items. Jacob likes rules and rituals: he eats and watches Crime Busters at the same time each day without fail, eats only foods of a certain color on certain days, and meets with his social skills tutor, a grad student named Jess, at the same time twice a week. He’s very sensitive to light, sound, and touch, and can be sent into a meltdown at a moment’s notice.
When Jess turns up murdered, Emma realizes that her son may have been involved when she sees one of his quilts at the crime scene on the news. Jacob is promptly arrested and charged with murder, and Emma and Jacob’s lawyer are charged with the task of convincing a jury that Jacob’s quirks—lack of eye contact and emotion, flat affect—are not signs of his guilt. What Jacob doesn’t mention is that his brother Theo had inexplicably been at Jess’s house before Jacob arrived.
Here’s what I didn’t like about this book.
1. Despite knowing—and stating several times both in her narrative and during Jacob’s trial—that Jacob relentlessly tells the truth, Emma fails to question him closely about what happened the day Jess died. She asks him, “Did you do it?” Jacob says, “I did not,” and Emma believes him and leaves it at that. So why in god’s name wouldn’t you ask him a few more questions? Like, “Was she already dead when you got there?” No one thought to ask that?! Everyone just acted as though it was a given that Jacob had killed her during a meltdown. A little faith here, people.
2. Theo never speaks up about being in the house. Here’s a big spoiler: when Jess catches Theo watching her in the shower, she quickly jumps out and begins marching toward him. Give you one guess what happens to her. Yeah, she slips on the wet floor and hits her head. Theo saw her hurrying across the wet floor—he never thought of this possibility? He just assumed his brother had killed her?
3. Despite being told repeatedly (and I do mean repeatedly) that Jacob is extremely literal—tell him to pitch a tent, and he’ll throw it at you—Jacob uses metaphors and similes and other such figurative language in his narrative. It was such a glaring oversight on the author’s part that it drove me crazy.
4. The entire novel was extremely heavy-handed regarding Asperger’s. We were repeatedly given information about the behaviors and traits of individuals with Asperger’s, anecdotes about Jacob’s meltdowns and about how hard it is to be the brother of a kid with Asperger’s, and testimonies that sounded like textbook definitions of AS that it just got old. I get it. Now can we move on to the plot? (Disclaimer: I don’t know much about autism spectrum diagnoses in general, so I can’t speak to how accurate a portrayal it was.)
5. Emma left the house in the middle of the night to sleep with her son’s lawyer? Really?
I don’t think I’ve ever written such a scathing review, and I feel a little guilty about it, but I just really didn’t enjoy this one. If you’ve read it and feel differently about it, please do let me know.