By Maureen Corrigan
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, March 2, 2010; C02
By Jodi Picoult
Atria. 532 pp. $28
An 11-year-old girl -- a precocious reader -- was visiting my home a few weekends ago. Over the past year, she'd devoured "The Great Gatsby," "The Joy Luck Club" and "Huckleberry Finn." She noticed the review copy of Picoult's 17th novel, "House Rules," on my coffee table and said that she'd liked some of Picoult's other works, especially "My Sister's Keeper" and "The Tenth Circle." I told her this new novel was wonderful.
Shyly, she asked if she could borrow it. I'm an educator, someone who, by training and disposition, is inclined to applaud a young person's thirst for reading. But I grabbed that fat review copy out of the kid's paws so fast she didn't have time to blink. The possessive hoarder who wants to keep all good books within reach had been awakened. I muttered something inane about the reviewers' code of honor forbidding me to lend books before they've been published. Hey, if this 11-year-old wunderkind has absorbed anything from her reading, she's surely learned the fundamental lesson of every Jodi Picoult fictional family: Life's tough.
Throughout the long unfolding of "House Rules," Picoult keeps so many storyline streamers whirling in the air that it would be easy just to praise her technical mastery. But though the multiple plots and narrators are, indeed, adroitly managed, what most readers will cherish is the character of Jacob Hunt, an 18-year-old high school student with Asperger's syndrome. (Jacob, in goofy teen fashion, jokes: "Asperger's. I mean, doesn't it sound like a Grade Z cut of meat? Donkey on the barbecue?")
Asperger's rules Jacob's life and the life of his family, which consists of his understandably resentful-but-guilty younger brother, Theo, and his wry and exhausted mom, Emma. (Although Dad sends child support, he fled the coop long ago.) Emma ensures that a sense of routine -- so crucial to Jacob's emotional well-being -- is strictly maintained from week to week. His clothes are color-coded in his closet; daily meals are color-coded too (Monday food is green; Tuesday, red; Wednesday, yellow), and his diet is restricted, since glutens and caseins spark meltdowns. As Emma observes: "Frankly, with 1 in 100 kids in the United States being diagnosed on the [autism] spectrum, I bet I could have a top-rated show on the Food Network: Alimentary Autism. Jacob doesn't share my culinary enthusiasm. He says that I'm what you'd get if you crossed Jenny Craig with Josef Mengele."
Picoult's depiction of Jacob and his family is complex, compassionate and smart. The Hunts are likable, but none of them is likely to be nominated for sainthood soon: Jacob sometimes rages and becomes physically violent; Emma harbors fantasies of "the life I might have had"; Theo has taken to spying on other families and breaking into their houses while they're away so that he can slip into normalcy for a space.
What propels "House Rules" out of Picoult's home category of the sharply observed domestic drama and into the overlapping genre of crime fiction is the fact that Jacob nurses an obsession with forensic science. Thanks to his mom's ill-thought-out birthday gift of a police scanner radio, Jacob has even turned up at a couple of crime scenes, unnerving the police with his Asperger's-related reluctance to make eye contact, as well as his detailed knowledge of rigor mortis and blood spatter patterns. So, when Jacob's tutor -- a lovely college student who's been working with him on his social skills -- is found dead, the police (and even Emma and Theo) suspect that Jacob's obsession with crime scenes may have led him to stage one of his own.
Inspired plot twists ensue. Romance and even a qualified redemption hover tantalizingly on the horizon. But, again, it's Jacob who will linger with readers. Desperate to connect with other people and yet hampered in his ability to do so, he is painfully glassed off from the world of his peers, as well as from most adults. Picoult's superb novel makes us inhabit Jacob's solitude and abide his yearning.
Corrigan, who is the book critic for the NPR program "Fresh Air," teaches a course on detective fiction at Georgetown University.