Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Nineteen Minutes by Jodi Picoult

In this emotionally charged novel, Jodi Picoult delves beneath the surface of a small town to explore what it means to be different in our society.

In Sterling, New Hampshire, 17-year-old high school student Peter Houghton has endured years of verbal and physical abuse at the hands of classmates. His best friend, Josie Cormier, succumbed to peer pressure and now hangs out with the popular crowd that often instigates the harassment. One final incident of bullying sends Peter over the edge and leads him to commit an act of violence that forever changes the lives of Sterling’s residents.

Even those who were not inside the school that morning find their lives in an upheaval, including Alex Cormier. The superior court judge assigned to the Houghton case, Alex—whose daughter, Josie, witnessed the events that unfolded—must decide whether or not to step down. She’s torn between presiding over the biggest case of her career and knowing that doing so will cause an even wider chasm in her relationship with her emotionally fragile daughter. Josie, meanwhile, claims she can’t remember what happened in the last fatal minutes of Peter’s rampage. Or can she? And Peter’s parents, Lacy and Lewis Houghton, ceaselessly examine the past to see what they might have said or done to compel their son to such extremes. Nineteen Minutes also features the return of two of Jodi Picoult’s characters—defense attorney Jordan McAfee from The Pact and Salem Falls, and Patrick DuCharme, the intrepid detective introduced in Perfect Match.

Rich with psychological and social insight, Nineteen Minutes is a riveting, poignant, and thought-provoking novel that has at its center a haunting question. Do we ever really know someone?

When I first picked up Nineteen Minutes, I actually did not know it was about a school shooting. The synopsis on the back of the paperback I had was very vague and I thought Nineteen Minutes was going to be about a suicide. I was almost pleasantly surprised when I found out the real topic of discussion because school shootings are a fascinating subject to read about. I was too young to really remember Columbine, but I was a freshman in high school during Virginia Tech so this awareness has been in the back of my mind and its something that can be really scary to consider. I know that if I was ever in this situation, I would be terrified out of my mind, so the fiction is a way to deal with the reality. If you are familiar at all with Columbine, you will recognize some eerie similaries (which I'm sure are written about on purpose). It actually seemed like a fictionalized Columbine, except we get to see what happens when the shooter has to go to trial, which is usually a departure from the norm (it appears that many of the shooters commit suicide).

In addition to the linear telling of the story, like with all of Jodi Picoult's novels, the audience gets to see flashbacks and the events leading up to this tragedy. Since the books are written with a bunch of different POVs (but somehow manages not to be confusing at all), we get to go into the head of Peter, the shooter. On the outside he seems almost normal; not one you'd except to go on a killing rampage. But what the book deals with what might drive someone to this extreme and it examines the role of the parents and schools (if any) in the incident. Those are some tough questions. Do you solely blame the shooter? Do you blame the parents for raising the shooter? The bullies who are part of the reason the shooter came to school with guns? The school for not having a stricter bullying policy? Nineteen Minutes touches on all of these but doesn't answer them, which makes sense, because nothing in life is black and white. I like that Picoult's books discuss the gray area, but don't make any conclusions, because, really, there are none.

There was a bit of a twist ending that I was not expecting at all and made the story really interesting. Nineteen Minutes is extremely sad and tragic but one that I think is important to read. It was a summer reading book for a school district in my area, and I think it's a perfect choice to discuss in class. The novel calls to the bullies, the victims, the bystanders, the school administrators, the parents and hopefully helps bring awareness to such an important topic.

Rating: 8 out of 10.

FTC: I borrowed this from my library.

2007/Atria/464 pages.

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