Friday, July 30, 2010

Book Review: "House Rules: A Novel" by Jodi Picoult

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.


Jacqueline said...

Thanks for this. I was considering reading this book, but now I think I'll avoid it, lest I throw it against a wall and incur a library fine.

outoutout said...

Your review pretty much sums up my own feeling about this book.

I know Jodi went to great lengths to portray "the autism experience" accurately, but all of her characters struck me as more like composites than real people. As you pointed out so eloquently, Jacob is a walking stereotype. Emma (the mother) has some really asinine views about her son & his condition, yet is a complete martyr to his whims - even to the point of ringing up the power company to complain about it. I mean, really! The character who really made me angry, though, was the "social skills teacher", Jess, who insists on bringing her arse-of-a-boyfriend to their sessions in order to teach Jacob "how to tolerate people he doesn't like". I'll stop there lest I spoil it.

"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'."

I agree completely!

Dazie said...

I have been trying to read this book for a couple of months now, I am a fan of Jodi's books and after seeing her doing a interview about this book thought it would be a interesting read. But I am struggling, think I will carry on and see how I feel at the end, if I ever get there!!.


In Real Life said...

Yes! I agree with you. I thought Jacob's personality came across like a re-gurgatated text book at the beginning, it did seem to get somewhat better as the book progressed though. I thought it painted an awfully bleak portrait of life with Aspreger's, and as a parent of a child with Asperger's I found it somewhat offensive. However, all-in-all, I guess it was an ok book.

eaucoin said...

Thank you for this review. I have been avoiding this book because of things I heard, but now I'm sure I don't want to read it. To me it really sounds like the difference between what it's like to have a child on the spectrum and what an observer thinks it must be like. It's frustrating, because she clearly wants to be objective, but lacks sufficient personal experience of this issue. Just like in real life, when even the people with good intentions fail, it can make you feel more isolated.

DeBT said...

I felt that the Aspergian traits were rather broad myself, and could've been better expanded on. However, it's more likely to appeal to parents whose Aspergians have gotten in trouble with the law, and their lack of ability in being able to manipulate official people. Not to mention the writer's well-known for adhere to the formula of taking a specific disability and running it through the gauntlet in court.

Marita said...

Thank you for the review. I've had this on hold at the library for a while, I was about 35th in the hold list and I'm now down to 17th. Will happily go remove my name from the list as I'd much rather avoid the negativity.

JMont said...

I am the parent of a 13 year old Aspi. I just finished the first 100 or so pages and decided I HATE this book. I have no interest in finishing it. I came on-line to see what others thought and found your blog. I feel vindicated by your review and your reader's responses! Not only am I a parent, but I am a teacher and have had several Aspi students in my classes. I feel like the character Jacob is just a composite collection of EVERY possible Aspi issue one could think of rolled into one person. As one of the comments made earlier stated--there were also too many things that Jacob does in the book that would have been handled differently as he aged. Each child develops and matures as he ages and the issues that bothered one at age 5 are often different by age 10 and age 18! Again...I HATE THIS BOOK. AGREED: "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'."

Better to read "Look Me In The Eye" by John Elder Robison. Written by a man with Asperger's.

Angela said...

Thank you Gavin! You are more patient than me. I read the first chapter of this book and was so disgusted by the stereotyping that I returned it to Barnes and Noble and demanded a refund.

I don't think Jodi Picoult is doing the aspergers/autism community any favors by perpetuating stereotypes. And yes Jacqueline, I almost did throw the book against the wall.

Kate said...

I read the entire book - in fact, I just finished it a few hrs ago. But I'll tell you, I had to grit my teeth to get through the last 200 pages or so!

Maybe it's just my knowledge of AS and how Jodi likes to work her plots, but it was SO OBVIOUS WHAT WAS HAPPENING and what the ending would be ( I will not spoil it for anyone who hasn't read it). But I just wanted to say, I've read at last a dozen Picoult books, loved every single one, and never once predicted an ending. I had this ending predicted by page 200 (out of 530) or whenever the action started happening.

I really hate the characterization of the characters. I HATE how it's basically 500 pages of describing how Jacob doesn't have any empathy. I think it's a totally one sided and mostly inaccurate depiction. It basically depicts him as a monster. I really am saddened actually by how many people are going to read this just because it's a Jodi Picoult book and come out with a TOTALLY wrong and misguided idea of what Asperger's is. She does redeem him a little bit in the end, but it's not enough. And I'm betting a good portion of people won't get to the end anyway.

If I didn't know anything about AS and didn't have a particular desire to, it would have been a good read. But knowing what I did, there was no way I can recommend it. Okay, it kept my attention enough for me to finish it, yes, but like I said, I was wincing the whole time.

I know she needed to stretch things to make a good story but in my opinion she stretched them way too far.

Also, in my opinion Jacob would have been diagnosed as autistic rather than Asperger's. I have never met an Asperger's person as impaired as him.

My 2 cents

Sue said...

Thank so much for this insightful review. It put in to words what I had trouble phrasing. I am the parent of an 8 year old boy with AS and I could not read beyond the first 100 pages, as it was too upsetting for several reasons. My biggest worry for my son (who is a sweet person with many good friends) is that other parents my not allow their children to play with him if they find out he has AS, and believe that they are violent, or lack empathy (which is untrue!). I feel that a disservice has been done to all children with AS, as this book only serves to alienate them further if readers believe its inaccurate depiction of AS.

Anonymous said...

Please tell me there never was and never will be a mother like the one in the book. Of course he continued in his autistic traits when she catered to every whim---encouraging him to be selfish in all his desires. She wouldn't let him grow up, still treating him like he was 4.

Allyson said...

I enjoyed the book. My 25 year old son is autistic, being honest, I recognised myself in Emma the mum, as a single parent with little back up my world at times became as far removed from the norm as my sons interests and behaviours did.
Some of her decisions were really bizarre especially the different coloured days, and her making excuses all the time for difficult behaviour, but As an exhausted, frustrated overwhelmed human being I have done the same many times.
The only weak point for me was she never actually asked her son outright what happened, and had very little real interaction with him, but then again that is what gave you the courtroom drama.

Anonymous said...

I'm a teenage aspie myself, and I enjoyed this book a lot, simply because by making Jacob into a broad stereotype, it enables the many different types of Aspies to relate to him. Such as, I myself have had meltdowns over my contact lens getting stuck in my eye slightly wrong, or if I have too much stimulation I'll start feeling this massive surge of nervous energy and I have to start wobbling my legs or flapping my hands to try to get rid of it.

I've had quite a similar life to Jacob (including the obsession with dinosaurs haha) what with going to many different social skills groups, getting beaten up at school because I was different, and also being unable to wear wool on my bare skin because I find it impossible to handle.

But unlike Jacob, I've never been in a court of law and I also have now managed to become 'normal' in the broadest sense of the word, mainly thanks to my mum. Unlike Emma, mum has always taken a harsh line towards my meltdowns and would put me in time out to calm down and tell me off. You may think that this is horrible, but I learnt that throwing myself on the ground in the middle of a supermarket and having a fit, for example, was not socially acceptable. But f course, I have had allowances made too, such as at school, but the point I am trying to make is that Emma Hunt was barking up the wrong tree, as the saying goes.

From this lil' aspie to all you others of the tribe,
Over and Out

Anonymous said...

The reason I like this book was because if the autism qoutes they rung true for me

Rachel Rabbii said...

Thank you so much. You have said everything I feel about this book.

I have Aspergers yet I could not identify with Jacob. Yet I can identify with Sheldon from the big bang theory (someone who I see as having extreme versions of my personality).

My main problem with this book, however, is the way Jodi Picoult treats Jacob. She sees him more as an autistic child than a person. His personality does go much past 'oh I'm autistic which means it alright for me to act like this.'