I'd be lying if I said that I didn't get any enjoyment out of Jodi Picoult's House Rules.
It's a novel and it's supposed to be fictional so I can't expect it to remain entirely faithful to the truth about aspergers.
The book is a mainly a courtroom drama which centers around the use of "aspergers" to suggest that a defendent was "legally insane" at the point that a crime was committed. What makes things worse is that since that the boy with aspergers has a special interest in forensics, his reactions to grisly court room proceedings tends to be one of glee rather than remorse. The fact that he takes questions at face value and gives minimalist answers only to direct questions compounds the issue.
This novel is a slow read with very little direct action. It's written from the point of view of several characters including a boy with aspergers, his brother, his mother, his lawyer and a detective. The fact that each of these persona uses a different font certainly makes the novel easier to read but the transition from chapter to chapter is still a little jarring at first.
The book does have some great characterisation and because of its multiple perspectives, you do tend to get into the heads of the characters.
Although the book contains a lot of detail on aspergers, it doesn't attempt to make the distinction between the truth and fiction. At first, I found this really irritating, particularly when a doctor takes the stand and launches into a tirade about how immunisations cause the condition and how we're all slaves to the pharmaceutical companies.
It's only later when other characters contradict her that I realised that the novel was attempting to model the sorts of conflict of opinion that occurs in real life. My own opinions went from irritation to admiration at that point. The book makes similar points about the gluten and casein free diets making the confusion and confrontations between parents and doctors quite obvious.
The book also demonstrates that several routines have little or not affect on the well being of the person with aspergers yet are followed to the letter regardless. This is quite typical of today's crusading moms who sometimes become convinced of an unusual "truth" and alter their entire lifestyle around it refusing to accept that there isn't actually any evidence that it works. Interactions with teachers are also highlighted. For parents of children with aspergers, it's an unnecessary reminder of the pain we go through for our children every day. It's reassuring to know that at least some of that pain is being communicated to a wider audience.
Unfortunately, where the novel falls down is in its depiction of aspergers. Jodi has done some research and has interacted with a few people with aspergers but the protagonist of the book comes across as a mix of the very worst aspergian sterotypes. I don't know any teenage aspies who have all of the symptoms displayed by Jacob Hunt or who are affected as deeply by their condition.
Most of the time, his behaviour is much more like a primary school child. Jacob doesn't have any other co-conditions which in itself is unusual but his impulsiveness and at times, quite violent behaviour seem to tell a different story.
At one point Jacob has a meltdown because he won't wear a shirt with buttons to court. I understand that, like me, he has texture issues but this is an eighteen year-old we're talking about. Most mothers of children on the spectrum would have figured out which types of shirts their children could wear by this point in their lives and they would also have found ways around the problems.
In fact, Jacob's mother comes across as overly protective and way too accepting of his routine. I can appreciate the fact that sometimes weird aspie rules simply create themselves over time. (In the book, each day of the week is allocated a specific colour). I really can't accept the fact that a mother would still be cooking colour-coded meals for an eighteen year old. Mine certainly wouldn't have.
Similarly, some of the phrases that confuse Jacob are ones which I'm sure he would have encountered frequently in an eighteen year lifespan. I just have trouble believing his interpretations to be the responses of a teenage aspie particularly when his character at times talks about much more oblique phrases and explains why they mean something entirely different.
The book also makes some fairly outrageous claims, suggesting that aspies are always self-focussed and putting emotions and empathy well out of their reach. I'd accept this as part of the novel's depiction of "real life reactions" except that these sentiments are repeated and reinforced constantly - even by the aspie character. In the end, they tend to erode the reader's sympathy for the character and paint him as heartless.
The novel tends to plod along fairly predictably (well, I thought it was obvious) and while there are moments where it shines - such as the parts discussing Henry, the aspie's father - it ultimately leaves me with the feeling that had the mother actually talked to her son properly she would have gotten the answers she needed within the first few chapters instead of 400 pages later.
I hate to have to give a negative reaction to a book because after all, it's got a good story but...
If you're the parent of an aspie child who hasn't grown up yet - then you need to avoid this book like the plague. It's only going to give you "wrong-feelings".
If you're an aspie, you may enjoy it because at least some of the feelings will be familiar.
Of course, if you love courtroom drama and you're not the parent of a young child on the spectrum, then this book is for you.
House Rules is available from Amazon and several other outlets.
Honesty Clause: This wasn't a review copy, my sister suggested that I read it.