Book Reviews

Book Review: House Rules by Jodi Picoult – Hits Very Close to Home

As the mother of a child on the autism spectrum, I knew House Rules would be a hard book for me and I was right.  Along with being a compelling story and giving me some new insight into my son’s condition, it’s a gut-wrenching story that leaves me fearful of how my son is perceived by outsiders.  There were times I had to put the book down and walk away for a while to collect my thoughts.

At the center of House Rules is the character of Jacob, an eighteen-year-old with Asperger’s Syndrome.  His parents are divorced as his father couldn’t cope with the ramifications of his condition, and Jacob lives with his mother, Emma, and brother, Theo.  Emma keeps a tight schedule and controlled environment for Jacob, trying to prevent the meltdowns that accompany any deviations in the schedule.  Theo is a typical teenager who greatly resents his brother and the condition that seems to dominate their life.  He combats this by breaking into houses and seeing how those people live, imagining that is his life instead.

One of the break-ins ends up being the home where Jacob’s social-skills teacher, Jess, is house-sitting.  Jess ends up missing, then found dead, and it seems all fingers are pointing to Jacob.  His condition leads to this suspicion as things like being unable to look in people’s eyes and being nervous in certain situations lend to the suspicions of his guilt.  Add to this his obsession with CSI-type shows and forensics, including enjoying creating staged crime scenes, and it even casts doubt on his innocence in his mother’s eyes.

Picoult always conducts her research well and her insight into the character of Jacob was quite good.  What I gathered from her notes on the book is that she extensively interviewed a person affected with Asperger’s.  Her characterization of Jacob here gave me a few insights into how things are for my own son.

Her writing can be challenging for some people as she moves around during the book, telling the story from the perspective of many different characters.  It gives the story and the characters quite a bit of depth.  At the same time, there were times when it confused me a bit and I’d re-read it, not realizing the connection until further along in that particular portion or even later on in the book.

There’s a trial sequence that seems to be present in all of Picoult’s books. This gives a look at the outside view of those with Asperger’s as Jacob’s inexperienced lawyer tries to defend him.  Even Emma seems to have her doubts at times about her son’s innocence, but she knows that no matter what, he’d never be able to tolerate life in prison.  Emma has spent her life catering to Jacob’s needs, putting aside her own here, as many mothers do for their children even when not necessarily affected by such a condition.  Her feelings of “when is it time for me” are something I frequently echo and make it easy for women to connect with her.

The ending of a Jodi Picoult book is usually something people love or hate.  I don’t always need things wrapped up nicely for me, and this one definitely delivers on that.  What exactly is going to happen is never spelled out, although something resembling the truth is finally revealed.

Despite my trepidations about this hitting so close to home, I liked House Rules although it does seem to pile on more than I have to worry about.  The characters are quite deep and give insight into Asperger’s, even if it does seem to pile on the symptoms of this condition.  Most children won’t be affected to the degree Jacob is, no matter where they fall on the spectrum.  However, it makes for an interesting question about where these children will fit into society, especially considering that there are estimates of around 1 in 110 children being affected by this disorder.