House Rules may be the most painful, yet rewarding and educational novel you will read this year. Jodi Picoult places us squarely in the life of a boy with Asperger's Syndrome so that we can see the painful effects this condition has on him, his family, and those around them. Asperger's is a form of high-functioning autism. The new DSM-V (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition, 2013) proposes to recategorize the various forms of autism into a single diagnosis, thereby eliminating the specific diagnosis of Asperger's. One of every one hundred children is diagnosed on the autism continuum today.
Jacob Hunt, one of the narrators of House Rules, is affected by this condition. He is extraordinarily bright, with a fixation on forensic science - think CSI. He can analyze crime scenes as well as a professional, and, most ominously, he can create fake crime scenes. His world is literal with no nuances; metaphors mean nothing. Ask him what is up and he is most likely to say the ceiling if he is inside a building, or the sky if outside. He is incapable of telling a lie. Jacob has limited social skills, makes no eye contact, cannot bear to be touched, and has a flat affect. He is undone by the color orange. Life is a series of routines to the extent that each day is devoted to foods of a certain color.
Jess, a college student who is Jacob's social tutor, is murdered and the drama ensues. All the evidence, a string of unrelated events and facts, seems to point clearly to Jacob - or to his brother Theo who has a habit of breaking into houses. The chief of police, who is forming a relationship with Jacob's mother, believes he did it and arrests him, but does make allowances for his "quirks."
Picoult, as she always does, creates a very realistic world for her characters. The exposition draws the reader into their lives, making them by various degrees sympathetic or not. She imbues them with life and gets the reader invested in the outcome. Layer by layer Picoult builds the tension, and the answer to who committed the crime hangs in the balance. The resolution is satisfying.
Jodi Picoult's seventeenth novel may be her best and is sure to keep her near the top of the bestseller lists. For information about the controversy related to childhood vaccinations and their potential effect on Asperger's, visit jodipicoult.com, click on the House Rules button, and read "A Conversation with Jodi About House Rules."