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Nineteen Minutes by Jodi Picoult

Fiction Reviews

Nineteen Minutes by Jodi Picoult

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.

Nineteen Minutes by Jodi Picoult 1
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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Julie Ellam received her Ph.D. in English Literature from Hull University. Her work has appeared in numerous publications including the "Times Literary Supplement." She also writes a blog about television - "tellyjelly." Julie currently resides in Hull, England.



  1. samantha

    December 10, 2010 at 10:53 am

    this book was recomended to me by my grandmother, i am infact in highschool. and someone wanted to know if highschool is such shark infested waters. well, to be completely honest, in a way it can be. i mean i see everyone usually tries to be sympathetic to those who cant control if theyre “unnacceppted” and not give them a hard time. but there are really kids in school that have no regards towards others fellings and it can go from bad to worse in an instant. say the wrong thing to someone, and you might have a new enemy. look at a girl the wrong way and you deffinately have a new enemey. just something to think about.

    personally, i loved this book. i didnt want it to end

  2. Una

    July 7, 2010 at 3:10 pm

    I loved this book in many ways. However, It is the holes in the story that bother me.

    Why is there no reaction from Alex when she realises what a bully Matt was? He was her daughter’s boyfriend and Alex was charmed by the signs of love in her daughter. Then we find out what a bully Matt was (the real monster of the story). Alex should have been horrified that her daughter was involved with a character who was capable of such cruelty. Picoult tells us nothing.

    Then, how could Peter’s mother not have realised that he was suffering so much? When he “loses” his lunchbox for the third time in first grade, does it not even occur to her that he may be being bullied? Apparently not. Her reaction is to punish her little boy! Punish him for being bullied! The book encourages us to ask questions about the role of parenting (or failures of parenting) in the creation of a “monster”. Yet, this particular failure slips by practically unnoticed. Not only does his mother fail to recognise that he is in trouble, she punishes him for the consequences. That must be devastating for a child. The one person on whom he should be able to depend to protect him and vindicate him, effectively joins the bullies in undermining him. I can’t believe that any mother so loving as Peter’s could be so blind.

    Next hole. No one seems to react adversely to details of the bullying Peter was subjected to. There is no sense that anyone looks at these “jocks” as monsters, which they truely are. This is emphasised in the complete lack of reaction of teachers (symbolised by the absense of any instruction to teachers in the anti-bullying policy document) when Peter is humiliated. In the canteen, after the “pantsing” incident, both boys are treated the same by the teacher in charge. In any school I know, such an incident, witnessed by a teacher, would lead to either the suspension of the perpetrator or his total expulsion from school. Is it really the case that such overt bullying would be passed over so casually by American High school adminstrators?

    Near the end of the book, there are several comments to the effect that “nothing has changed”. I am not surprised. The book, while appearing to be trying to winnow out the reasons why a child would be driven to such appalling actions, fails to challenge the adults in the story. Where were they and where were they looking when their children were in such trouble? The story line seems to suggest that when Alex gives up her judge position and gets a man, she suddenly begins to develop a bond with her child Josie. Can Picould be serious? Despite being obsessed with the idea of being a good mother, Professional single mothers cannot connect with their children? Neither, it seems can professional married women or their professional husbands. Maybe they need to spend less time on the idea of parenting and more on actually being parents.

    Are American High Schools such shark infested waters? I would love to hear from young people currently attending such schools. Is the picture created by Picoult accurate? Are children tearing each other apart like this on a daily basis (and I don’t mean the shootings)? Are parents really so blind?

  3. Miller2

    January 31, 2010 at 1:50 pm

    i really enjoyed this book but i thought that it was a little to long…i just wanted it to be straight to the point. there were too many details that i thought didn’t need to be there. but i really liked the back a forth of the story, that made it interesting

  4. Brittney

    January 26, 2010 at 3:50 pm

    I loved this book! It was amazing! I could not put it down!

  5. cynthia

    December 21, 2009 at 11:35 pm

    this book is absolutely brilliant. it is so well written and not even one page was boring or pointless. i was very interested the whole entire time. when i did put the book down, all i kept thinking about was going back to read it. the book only looks long and normally i would be hesitant on such a thick book but honestly, it is such a great read you don’t even realize it and you’re done before you know it. i would recommend this book hands down. absolutely love it and am looking forward to read more of her books. she is a great author.

  6. reagan x

    November 19, 2009 at 7:23 am

    this book was really really good, i had to write my PSU on it and i found it a really deep and emptional book. I have read mostly all off Jodie Picoults books and loved them all.

  7. lukeeee whiteeee

    October 21, 2009 at 6:58 am

    i thought this book was amazing. it is cool i love readding books im such a geek. that is what i do best. This book made me think a really ment a lot to me. it made me realisee dont even spend 19 minutes on a book never mind a whole lessonn

    peacee outtt

  8. Jon

    October 14, 2009 at 9:41 pm

    In my AP english class we were asked to read a book from a list given to us by the teacher. I chose Nineteen Minutes (clearly) and my initial thoughts were, “This is going to take WAY too long to read.” I was Partially right. It was a really long book but I thought that had it been shortened it wouldn’t be as good. And seriously this book was awesome. After this I really want to read “The Pact”, mainly because Jordan McAfee was an awesome character so I’d like to read another book with him. I seriously would recommend Nineteen Minutes to anyone asking for a good book. Jodi Picoult has perfect delivery. Definately a two thumbs up!

  9. Grace k.

    September 14, 2009 at 9:13 pm

    i lovvvveeeeeee this booook!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
    if this was a movie this would be my cast
    josie:brenda song or victoria justice
    matt:sean faris
    peter:chris owen
    alex:leslie mann or leslie hope
    patrick:peter facinelli or ben affleck
    jordan:billy burke
    selena:gabriella union
    lacy:jennifer aniston
    lewis:robort downy jr.
    courtney:meagan park
    drew:cam gigandet

  10. Amy

    May 11, 2009 at 7:25 am

    in My sister’s keeper, Anna died in car accident for goodness sake, i don’t see how much more fantastic yet suprising that could be?! If you believe it should have better, you should write your own ending to it, and see how hard it is!!

  11. Grace

    May 11, 2009 at 7:21 am

    This book was a fantastic read, i couldn’t get enough of it. It was roping me in further and further as i read on and was a brilliant topic of how bullying can cause such catastrophic events. I would recomend it to anybody.

  12. morgan

    May 2, 2009 at 3:30 pm

    so amazing.
    my friends got my started on jodi picoult’s books and i haven’t been able to put them down. nineteen minutes is my favorite, hands down!

  13. Anonymous

    March 15, 2009 at 11:53 am

    This book is an amazing book & it really helped friends and family in the roccori school district. This was one of the hardest times ever! This book was something that really showed a lot about life. So thank you Jodi for making this book and helping students see the other side of things.

  14. gigi

    October 27, 2008 at 12:13 pm

    maybe jodi picoult was thinking of a possible movie. but the way peter’s short anecdotes of sorts are noted sometimes right at the beginning….its chilling how desolate and desperate loneliness can be…and yeah “we need to talk about kevin” by lionel shriver is a nicely written book too,in some ways more commendable than this one, but jodi picoult remains my favourite in this new “genre” of fiction.

  15. Anonymous

    October 21, 2008 at 7:21 pm

    I really enjoyed reading this book, but I did not think it contained the depth of my Sister’s Keeper (which I definitely recommend). Also, just like in My Sister’s Keeper, I was disappointed with the ending. It seemed to me that Ms. Picoult took the easy way out, didn’t embellish on her new twist enough, and had nothing substantial to lead to her bold new statement.

  16. michelle

    August 14, 2008 at 8:25 am

    i couldn’t agree more.
    after reading my sister’s keeper, i was looking forward to reading picoult’s other books, and so, it had to be this one. it wasn’t bad, but it certainly would not have made the impression as her other books have had.

    on the other hand, her unexpected twists are still present.

  17. Matt

    January 9, 2008 at 8:39 pm

    I had to read this book for english class and i read 10 pages it wasnt the book lack of interest it was how damn long it was so Jodi Keep them shorter next time

  18. Doug Alley

    July 20, 2007 at 8:00 pm

    As I read “Nineteen Minutes”, another troubled soul ruined lives at VTU. I’m sure that influenced me to tell everyone I knew to read this book, and, if anyone didn’t like it, I would buy any book of his or her choosing.
    A comment on the review: Peter was picked on and otherwise bullied on his first day on the bus, and this treatment continued and increased throughout public school, culminating in, not beginning with, high school.
    I feel the book is the story of Judge Alex Cormier, and any complaints on character developmen miss this point. The title obviously refers to “the shootings”, but the real story is about Alex, and her daughter. Any other reading simply parses the obvious.

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