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Originally published Saturday, March 13, 2010 at 7:00 PM

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Book review

Jodi Picoult's 'House Rules': a novel about a family ruled by Asperger's syndrome

A review of Jodi Picoult's new novel, "House Rules," the story of a family of a mother and two sons — one has Asperger's syndrome, the other must accommodate the routines and complications that govern family life. Picoult reads Friday at Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park, and Saturday at the Seattle Public Library's downtown branch.

St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Author appearance

Jodi Picoult

The author of "House Rules" will read at these Seattle area locations: at 6:30 p.m. Friday at Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park (206-366-3333; www.thirdplacebooks.com); and at 2 p.m. Saturday in the Microsoft auditorium of the Seattle Public Library's Central branch (206-386-4636; www.spl.org). Sponsored by Seattle's Elliott Bay Book Co. (206-624-6600; www.elliottbaybook.com).

'House Rules'

by Jodi Picoult

Atria, 532 pp., $28

After being disappointed by Jodi Picoult's previous book, "Handle With Care," I dug into her newest effort hoping for the best.

While "House Rules" treads some familiar ground when it comes to plot devices, her examination of a family dealing with the form of autism called Asperger's syndrome will touch all but the coldest heart.

Picoult quickly introduces us to the three members of the Hunt family: Emma and her sons, Jacob and Theo. At 18, Jacob's intelligence paired with his Asperger's makes life in the Hunt home difficult. For the Hunts, autism rules their life. Meals are color-coded (only green food on Monday, red on Tuesday and so on), and TV watching revolves around a crime-solving show.

Emma long ago gave up dating, friends or any remnants of a social life. The boys' father bailed years ago, although he does appear late in the book.

The book's title defines the problems, as well, for Theo, who is 15. He must abide by the house rules that make life run smoothly for Jacob. Making things go well for Jacob, however, comes at great cost to Theo. His much-delayed trip to the DMV for his learner's permit is still on hold; classmates heckle him over his special-needs brother; he's endured injuries when the sound of crumpling paper or a change in Jacob's routine upsets him to the point of becoming violent. (Here is where the plot borrows heavily from "My Sister's Keeper," where a younger sibling is held hostage to the needs of her older sister.)

This time, though, Picoult puts Jacob at peril via a murder of an attractive young graduate student, Jess, who has been working as his tutor. At first, her boyfriend draws the attention of police, but quickly enough the focus swings to Jacob. And no wonder, because he has taken to showing up at crime scenes around town and fills dozens of notebooks with the plot and details of every episode of "CrimeBusters." He even stages murder crime scenes at home, which Emma has willingly gone along with — until he's arrested for Jess' murder.

That's when the house rules get turned on their ear as Emma must use everything she can draw upon to fight for her son.

Picoult paints a believable slice of what life must be like for someone with Asperger's — the adherence to rituals, the impaired judgment, the emotional toll it takes on family and acquaintances. She also does a fine job of leaving you guessing until the end just how Jess died and who might be responsible.

While it's not Picoult's strongest book, it's a vast improvement over the dark and depressing "Handle With Care." And she leaves readers feeling they have at least learned something about autism.

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