Book Review: 

Nineteen Minutes by Jodi Picoult

What a surprise! Two books this month that initially had me thinking of putting them down in favour of something unread on my own book shelves; neither of them apparently being my kind of escapist novel: “Through Black Spruce” by Joseph
Boyden and “Nineteen Minutes” by Jodi Picoult. I felt that I couldn’t fathom the time line in either, with chapters leaping back and forth, but in the end I thoroughly enjoyed them both (and would recommend), but for very different reasons. Mo has given a brief review of “Through Black Spruce”, so I’ll focus on “Nineteen Minutes”.

When I first started “Nineteen Minutes” it struck me it was a chick-lit meets daytime TV cop drama… but it’s a thought provoking piece, through the skill in Jodi Picoult’s characters to provide views of the same story from very different perspectives. I could not imagine choosing a novel that centres around a teenager who goes on a shooting rampage at his school, Sterling High, let alone one that features a cop who has never not solved a case. Yeah! Pull the other one!

Picoult’s latest novel takes its title from the duration of a high-school shooting rampage perpetrated by Peter Houghton, who was never the “popular” kid in school. He always ended up being bullied; no friends to come to his rescue… indeed, evidently no friends at all, once his closest school ally, Josie Cormier, takes up with his worst enemy, Matt. So everyone will remember Peter for these nineteen minutes of his life, but “what about the other nine million?” Peter’s mother asks, as the truth hits home. In nineteen minutes, you can mow the front lawn, colour your hair, watch a third of a hockey game. In nineteen minutes, you can bake scones or get a tooth filled…

“There’s a word… schadenfreude,” one of the book’s characters writes. “It’s when you enjoy watching someone else suffer.” Well, schadenfreude is Peter’s life, and the jocks and the plastic “in crowd” of cheer-leaders enjoy his misery just as the reader surprisingly starts to enjoy their come-uppance, their schadenfreude. By focussing on the inter-family relationships in this small U.S. town, we realise the tragedy that has struck the Houghtons could happen to even the nicest American family — especially where these typical American parents embrace guns, whether in hunting or in violent video games and only focus on the accepted kids that meet the ideals of the American dream — as they neglect to notice that their under-achieving, weaker, quieter child really is being bullied, every single day of his sorry life.

You feel that the shocking villain has become the victim. But did the bullying, taunts and inexcusable oversights (by both his teachers and his parents) make Peter go wrong? Would he have been a happier boy if his Superman lunchbox, and seemingly most of his school lunches thereafter, had not been tossed out the window of the school bus? Or if his father hadn’t favoured his older brother, Joey? (“I don’t remember Joey losing his lunchbox three times during the first month of school.”)

There is intrigue too, with the invincible cop, Patrick Ducharme, becoming involved with Alex Cormier, the judge who might very well sit on the case, but for the fact her daughter, Josie, was present at the shootings, but can’t remember a thing. Alex insists that there is no need for her to recuse herself – remove herself from the case - even though Josie’s boyfriend was one of those killed. Even though Josie was the object of Peter Houghton’s frustrated longings. Ducharme won’t give up on either Alex or solving all the details of the case. I couldn’t help think of him as Peter Falk in Columbo.

The plot thickens, as they say: Peter’s mother, Lacy Houghton, was the midwife who delivered Josie, and she was once Alex’s best friend. Peter and Josie visited and played with each other. Several times in the book, the delightful past comes back to haunt the horrendous present.

When Lacy visits Peter in prison, she looks at another mum-convict relationship and watches “the woman’s eyes strip away the tattoos and the bare scalp and the orange jumpsuit to see a little boy catching tadpoles in a mud hole behind their house.” Thinking along similar lines, Alex remembers that Peter “used to like the peanut butter on the top half of the bread and the marshmallow on the bottom.”

There was a time when Alex was exclusively interested in her work than she ever was in children, but the shooting causes Alex to connect with her daughter at long last, to the point where she regrets the past and wishes she and Josie had spent more time painting each other’s toenails. “We could start over,” Josie suggests, after Alex burns another meal. “I’d like that,” Alex answers. By that time, as Ms. Picoult spells it out, “neither one of them was talking about cooking.” Her smooth prose and driving narrative pace is one of the reasons it is difficult to put the book down once you get started. She portrays the emotional battles of all the characters realistically, with a lot of ease, and I was hooked after the first 50 pages. Her extensive research reflects in the sensational plot (based on true scenarios). She coaxes readers to address issues that affect society at large.

So many situations and emotions are explored, addressing sensitive and difficult issues that are usually not discussed openly for fear of admitting the truths behind the reality. She spins an engrossing tale of intolerance, fear, horror, insight, rage, depression, discovery, love and joy, all without any gratuitous sex or violence! All too often these days, we are presented with the crude and sensational, rather than these human emotions - that many people generally choose to ignore.

After reading this book, I could see what might have caused some children who have acted in such violent ways, at say Columbine. Should we condone what Peter Houghton does, in retaliation to the years of abuse and bullying that he was subjected to? Of course not! But having been bullied myself, both at school and at work, I can be more than thankful that I did have people to support me. Bullying should never be tolerated and Jodi Picoult faces up to this fact brilliantly in Nineteen Minutes.

Nineteen Minutes is one of the best books I've read in quite some time. I would award this and Through Black Spruce a firm 8.5 out of 10. Well worth a read.

Simon Peck

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