House Rules House Rules

Jodi Picoult
ISBN 9780340979051 (0340979054)
Hodder & Stoughton, 27th April 2010 (576pp)

Category: Fiction
Subcategory: Crime / Legal
Reviewed by: Mike Norbury

As a secular author with a secular book this may seem a strange entry into the book reviews on a Christian site but there's a reason. As much as I enjoy many of the current Christian authors, next to The Bible, Jodi Picoult is consistently at the top of my reading list. As one of those rare breeds in the Christian trade - a publisher's representative - I spend many hours driving almost the whole length and breadth of this beautiful land and one of the ways in which I fill those hours is to listen to audio CDs from our public library. About three years ago I picked up and listened to Second Glance by Jodi Picoult and, for the very first time, at the end of the nineteen hour long CDs, I went back to disc one and started all over again. I don't think I had been gripped by such an amazing weaving of storyline and factual information.

From that experience I went on to read (yes, books this time) other Picoult titles and found that she is what can only be described as a craftswoman. In all her novels she confronts her reader with illness, historical fact and little known peoples weaving them into intriguing drama that has become the trademark of this regular top selling author. She places a lot of open questions in her books which we as the church need to answer. However she also sometimes questions us - which is no bad thing!

About two-and-a-half years ago I was able to hear Jodi Picoult speak one evening in Chesterfield. The following day I emailed her to thank her for the evening and the way in which she explains "unseen illnesses" in her books. I explained that my stepson, Chris, has Asperger's Syndrome - not diagnosed until he was 21 - and that we had recently been alongside him through the court system after he committed a crime. Within an hour she had replied that her 2010 project was to be about a teenage boy with Asperger's who has to face the legal system. Could we help? As a result both Chris and I have completed exhaustive questionnaires and given her much information about Asperger's and the effect on our lives.

Within the acknowledgments in the front of House Rules Jodi Picoult has included my name and Chris's which I find both honoring and humbling. My comment on Facebook following the receipt and subsequent reading of my gratis copy from the New York publishers was, "Thank God Chris is only 6/10 Asperger's unlike Jacob in 'House Rules' who is most definitely 10/10."

Now to the book. House Rules is about Jacob Hunt, a teenage boy with Asperger's Syndrome. He's hopeless at reading social cues or expressing himself well to others, and like many kids with AS, Jacob has a special focus on one subject - in his case, forensic analysis. He's always showing up at crime scenes, thanks to the police scanner he keeps in his room, and telling the cops what they need to do... and he's usually right. But then one day his special needs tutor is found dead, and the police come to question him. All of the hallmark behaviours of Asperger's - not looking someone in the eye, stimulatory tics and twitches, inappropriate affect - can look a lot like guilt to law enforcement officers - and suddenly, Jacob finds himself accused of murder. House Rules looks at what it means to be different in our society, how autism affects a family, and how our legal system works well for people who communicate a certain way - but lousy for those who don't.

As with most of her previous novels Picoult leaves no stone unturned in making her narrative so compelling that, in following the page turning storyline, the reader comes away not only having read a top rate piece of crime fiction but having learned a great deal about a disability that people do a lot of talking about but only a very small percentage actually understand.

I am particularly conscious of the way in which the church can deal with or fail to deal with those who are autistic or have other "unseen illnesses". Raising a child (and later a teenager) who finds it hard to interact with peers, be part of a team, look one in the eye, be in rooms where a lot of simultaneous action is taking place or generally be social can be hard enough for the parents who are living with him or her day by day. For those who came into contact with them less regularly there is often an inability to understand. I thank God that Chris was always handled with love at church - not so the case at school - but there were still many moments of frustration and misunderstanding on both sides.

House Rules has more than enough factual guidance and information to help anyone understand the needs of the Aspergic child and adult and I would fully recommend many of Jodi Picoult's books to those who minister to children and adults alike. She not only covers illness and disease but many social issues which we as the church also need to face. In a number of the books she also opens up discussion areas.

Here are some other Picoult titles I feel would be of interest:

  • Handle With Care - Osteogenesis Imperfecta (Brittle Bone) and Medical ethics.
  • Change Of Heart - Capital Punishment, Organ Transplant and the "black and white" of religious viewpoint.
  • Nineteen Minutes - Bullying leading to Violent Reaction (a college shooting). I have a friend who is a social worker who borrowed by copy of Nineteen Minutes to read. When he returned it he explained that not only had he been in tears at times but he had ended up reading it as he would a Christian work - rereading certain sections and going to God for enlightenment on them.
  • The Tenth Circle - Racism and the modern day Eskimo way of life.
  • Vanishing Acts - In-family kidnapping and the strength of family love.
  • My Sister's Keeper - now also a major movie - Leukemia and the morals of "genetic planning".
  • Second Glance - VT Eugenics (rife in the USA early in the 20th century), Xeroderma Pigmentosum (when skin is ultrasensitive to daylight) and Paranormal.
  • Perfect Match - Sexual Abuse.
  • Salem Falls - Should the citizens of a town have the right to decide who lives there? - a modern day witch hunt.
  • Plain Truth - Crime within the Amish community.

The immense popularity of Jodi Picoult's novels come from the staggering amount of personal research done by her for each one and then turning them into excellent and often controversial works of art.

Footnote: I'm delighted that on the day before the Christian Resources Together Conference at High Leigh, Jodi Picoult is speaking at the Lincoln Book Event and St Mary's Church in Ely. This means that we'll be able to meet up again, which we are both looking forward to.

Mike Norbury, April 2010

Mike Norbury is Retail Trade Manager for Kevin Mayhew Ltd, the company he has represented for almost 14 years. Brought up in Knutsford, Cheshire, he lives with his wife Jackie in Wrexham, North Wales, and looks after Christian trade customers throughout the north Midlands, North Wales, Scotland, the Isle of Man and the whole of Ireland as well as certain key accounts in the south of England. Mike's career since he was twenty-one has been solely in retail and sales representation. He and Jackie are members of The Community Church in Wrexham which is also the home of New Day International ministries, the base of Winepress Publishing, distributors of a wealth of ministry material and soaking music. Mike is a Street Pastor in Wrexham. Five years ago he visited the tsunami hit east coast of India as part of a team from the church where they conducted a Pastors' Conference, arranged support for a scheme to rehouse those who had lost everything and visited nine churches in and around the city of Visakhaptnam in Andhra Pradesh.

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