Friday, May 7, 2010


Jodi Picoult has written a lot of  bestselling novels, many of them "ripped from the headlines." She has covered such topics as mercy killing, teen suicide pacts, conceiving a second child solely in order to provide stem cells for a sick older child and school shootings (I had to pass on "Nineteen Minutes" because of the latter, too-painful-for-me subject.)

In "House Rules", Picoult tackles autism, a condition that is - according to which authority you believe - either greatly on the rise or just diagnosed better these days. Eighteen-year-old Jacob Hunt, one of the central characters in the book, has Asperger's Syndrome, a form of autism. 

Jacob is at the high end of the Asperger's spectrum. "They tell me I'm lucky to have a son who's so verbal, who is blisteringly intelligent, who can take apart the broken microwave and have it working again an hour later", says his mother Emma. "They think there is no greater hell than having a son who is locked in his own world, unaware that there's a wider one to explore. But try having a son who is locked in his own world, and still wants to make a connection. A son who tries to be like everyone else, but truly doesn't know how."

Jacob displays many of the "symptoms" noticed in autistic people: he has a compulsive attachment to order and routine; has a tendency to take comments literally; displays a hypersensitivity to bright lights, human touch, and scratchy fabrics; shows a reluctance to make eye contact; has a distinct lack of empathy; has public tantrums when overwhelmed; is painfully blunt; has difficulty relating to others and expressing emotions; is unable to read social clues.  

Like many autistics, Jacob tends to focus on a subject to the point of obsession. He is particularly obsessed with the television series "Crimebusters". He knows all the episodes by heart but still cannot bear to miss a single repeat airing. A theoretical expert on forensic science, he has been known to butt himself into local crime scenes after hearing about them on his police scanner. Once there, he proceeds to give advice (spot on, as it turns out), to the policemen and detectives.

So when Jacob's life skills coach, Jessica (whom he likes a great deal) is murdered, Jacob is very much a person of interest. Not only does he have a connection to her, there's that obsession with crime scenes, and certain aspects of his condition that make him appear suspect, such as not being able to meet another person's eyes and therefore looking guilty.

I thought that Picoult painted quite a good portrayal of a character with Asperger's. I know that I learned a lot about it. I thought she was wise, when mentioning that some experts believe that Asperger's is caused by faulty immunization vaccines, to leave it as one theory out of several possible theories.

Some of the chapters in the book are "written" by Jacob, and his personality really shines through in them. Other chapters are written from the points of view of Emma and his brother Theo. (Some of the chapters are also written from the point of view of the detective, but I found this device to be really unncessary.)

One of the most striking points Picoult makes is that Asperger's affects everyone in the family. Emma, a divorcee, has devoted her life totally to Jacob, probably at the expense of Theo. And although Theo, also a teen, loves his brother, Jacob is a social embarrassment, a pain in the butt for him.

A great deal of their life revolves around Jacob's wishes and demands. For example, they have to eat a color-coded meal every day of the week, so Friday, for example, would be all-brown food: beef, gravy, pork and beans, brownies.

I thought the plot deteriorated badly after the revelation of Jessica's murder. It seemed ludicrous to me that Jacob even went to trial for it. Any sane person should have been able to put two and two together and come up with the method and cause of Jessica's death. Jacob, with the "excuse" of Asperger's, may be forgiven on this point, but any of the other characters could have come up with the correct answer if they had just deliberated for a few minutes or even thought (duh!) to ask Jacob the right questions.

These flaws in the book are exacerbated by the excellent portrayals of the characters, especially Jacob and Emma. However, there is an extremely weak romance involving Emma and another man that just did not ring true.

I do admit to having checked for their reviews. A lot of people, it seems, were confused by the conclusion, but to me it is obvious. Just go back and read some of the passages again!

In many ways, "House Rules" resembles Picoult's "Her Sister's Keeper", only in reverse. In this case, who turns out to be his brother's keeper?

Personal Note:

By happenstance I recently watched a program on children with autism and was surprised to learn that this may be the origin of the term "fairy changeling", the folk belief that a normal child is taken by the fairies and replaced by another. For it has been documented that some children appear perfectly normal up to the age of 2 or 3 and then their demeanor, personality and abilities dramatically deteroriate and they display all the "symptoms" of autism. (I use quotes around "symptoms" because so many parents of children with autism are incensed that their children are said to have a disease.) 

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