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House Rules

by Jodi Picoult

About.com Rating 4.5 Star Rating

By

House Rules by Jodi Picoult
© Atria Books
Atria Books, 2010

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.
"House Rules" is the set of rules by which the household is governed. Everything revolves around Jacob. His mother Emma states at one point, "I used to have friends" before Jacob. Now her life is controlled by his needs. The same is true of his younger brother Theo who feels that his needs are ignored in order to keep Jacob's life orderly.

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.
Picoult talked with young people with Asperger's and their families so that she could accurately represent family dynamics. She intersperses her fiction with brief case histories and she had a young woman with Asperger's read the manuscript to ensure that Jacob's voice was right. However, since she built such a realistic, convincing world, I am bothered by one curious omission. Why didn't someone simply ask Jacob, "Did you kill Jess?" Yes, I know that such a question would eliminate much of the dramatic tension that Picoult so skillfully builds. I understand that Jacob's mother was scared to ask so direct a question, but that aspect could have been more prominent without losing the uncertainty that drives the novel to its conclusion.

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."
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