Nineteen Minutes by Jodi Picoult

Nineteen Minutes
by Jodi Picoult
Atria, 464 pp.
CLR [rating:3]

Lacking Depth

Over 12 million copies of Jodi Picoult’s books have been sold worldwide. Her 14th novel, Nineteen Minutes, went to number one on the New York Times bestseller list for fiction, and fans, if not all literary critics, will be pleased to know there is definitely more to come. At the National Book Awards in 2003, Stephen King bemoaned the gap between popular writers and the literary community, and argued that too many authors are overlooked (and he included Picoult here). By disregarding commercial fiction, either because of snobbery or distaste, the literary critic is also disregarding the opinions and values of a large section of the reading population.

Picoult’s oeuvre can be defined by her taste for contemporary newsworthy themes and has already covered disparate but relevant subjects such as sexual abuse and the moral dilemma of donating organs. This latest novel also depends on a salient topic for inspiration and is constructed around the lead up to, and fall out from, a high school massacre. It joins this ever expanding genre alongside work such as We Need to Talk About Kevin (2003) by Lionel Shriver and D.B.C. Pierre’s Vernon God Little (2003).

In comparison to these two novels, Nineteen Minutes offers a fairly straightforward account of what could make a student turn against his (or, sometimes, her) fellow class mates and the title refers to how long the shooting went on for. Picoult’s shooter, Peter Houghton, has been bullied throughout his school career, humiliated one too many times by the jocks and also has easy access to guns. Although this is not as imaginative as Shriver’s or Pierre’s take on this phenomenon, there is an element of complexity in that the narrative moves backwards and forwards as the events leading up to the murders and the aftermath are recounted. Despite the deserved and undeserved criticisms, Picoult manages to prove yet again that she has an ability to tell an interesting story.

This is also a worthwhile read for the attempts that are made to understand rather than demonize Peter, but his characterization could have been more detailed and given more depth to suit the purpose. Ultimately and unfortunately, this novel shies away from its central concern, which one supposes is to open up the violence-in-schools debate in order to comprehend why these atrocities occur in relatively privileged areas in small town United States of America. His bullies are similarly given little psychological probing and it feels as though, in places, Picoult resorts to invoking the same one-dimensional perspective she accuses the bullies of having.

The relationship between Peter and his parents is given more space, but this could also have been examined more closely. Picoult appears to hold back from following up on the intriguing world she creates. Relating the role of parents in raising a child who ends up being a murderer is welcome, particularly when we are told Peter’s father lectures on the economics of happiness. Irony is heaped on irony with the descriptions of Peter’s mother, Lacy, as she is a midwife (and deemed knowledgeable on parenting) and is also seen to be as kind as she is inept in her understanding of her son. This lack of awareness between the parents and child could have been squeezed for more material and this could have been brought about at the expense of editing out the less relevant musings of Alex Cormier, a judge and failing mother.

Personally speaking, Alex’s part is inflated and is a signifier of how too many subplots detract from the main narrative of discovering one has a murderer in the local suburban neighborhood. Too much time is spent on explaining Alex Cormier’s desire to be a good a judge as her remote, work-obsessed father. Her difficult relationship with her daughter, Josie, and her new love interest are further distractions rather than integral elements to the plot. These parts feels bolted on and overdone, and have the effect of making the reader even more impatient for a greater insight into the thought processes of the bullies and victims.

Knowing what we know of rampaging disaffected school children, which in truth is very little, this is still lacking in surprises because insufficient space is given over to Peter’s interpretation of the world. To give Picoult and her legions of fan their due, though, there is an unexpected twist which goes to prove this author should not be underestimated. Furthermore, if one skates over Alex’s deliberations and career interests, this becomes a far stronger novel. It is possible that the subplots that diverge from the massacre are used to give light as a contrast to the shade, but they appear instead as elements from a soapy romance. This is unnecessary and detrimental as Picoult’s ability to tell a good story is diminished by these aspects. It is not that romance, soapy or otherwise, is an invalid theme, it is just that in this case it dilutes the central premise.

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