Review: House Rules by Jodi Picoult
(Hodder & Stoughton, £16.99)
I have a confession: I've never actually read a novel by Jodi Picoult before. This might seem quite incredible to her millions of fans who eagerly anticipate each new tale, but actually I'd always been slightly put off by her astonishing productivity. The New Hampshire writer published her first novel in 1992, and since then she's produced 17 books, not to mention four issues of DC Comic's Wonder Woman.
Such a prolific work rate seemed to imply a formulaic approach to her stories. At first glance, they all appeared to be a mix of chick lit, misery memoir and issue of the day -- anything from sibling saviours to teen suicide seemed fair game for this writer.
So I didn't have particularly high hopes when I picked up House Rules. But after a few pages, it turns out that Picoult's followers -- who ensured that this went straight in at No1 on Ireland's best seller list -- might just be on to something after all.
Emma is a single mother to Jacob, an 18-year-old who has Asperger's syndrome, and his younger brother Theo. Her life revolves around what she refers to as Jacob's quirks.
Her elder son is brilliant, yet completely without empathy for others. He is obsessed with order and routine (he simply can't miss an episode of Crimebusters and each day of the week is colour-coded for both clothes and food so on Thursdays, he will only wear brown and ditto when it comes to meals). It physically pains him to look people in the eye and he is utterly fixated on topics such as forensic science. One of Jacob's favourite things is to set up fake crime scenes.
Theo, while outwardly normal, has a few quirks of his own. Left to his own devices by a mother who is dedicated to ensuring his brother's life is as 'neurotypical' as possible, he starts spying on seemingly happy households, eventually breaking into them and stealingiPods, CDs and Wii games. Eventually on one of these jaunts, he bumps into Jacob's tutor Jess.
He is one of the last people to see the twentysomething before she goes missing, and when her body is discovered, Jacob is arrested for her murder. He had been seen arguing with her a few days before. They may not be close, but Emma's boys always make sure to adhere to her household rules, the most important of which are never lie and always look after your brother.
House Rules is a riveting multi-layered story that races along at a good pace. Picoult tells her tale through several narrators: Emma, Jacob, Theo, Oliver (a young lawyer who is starting to fall for the mother of his client) and Rich (a detective investigating the disappearance of Jess).
This illuminating approach really works, showing how little we understand about each other -- even if Emma does seem to be lecturing her readers on autism. But her loyal followers needn't worry, Jodi is anything but predictable and you'll be caught up in this family story turned thriller until the very last page. The Picoult phenomenon continues.