After submitting my press credentials, I requested a press review copy of House Rules from the publisher. This is an independent review.
“They tell me I’m lucky to have a son who’s so verbal, who is blisteringly intelligent, who can take apart the broken microwave and have it working again an hour later. They think there is no greater hell than having a son who is locked in his own world, unaware that there’s a wider one to explore. But try having a son who is locked in his own world, and still wants to make a connection. A son who tries to be like everyone else, but truly doesn’t know how.” — from House Rules by Jodi Picoult
At 43, with 17 highly successful novels, a husband and three kids, Jodi Picoult is an ambitious woman. With the March 2010 release of House Rules, she proves she has her finger on the pulse of contemporary issues, given that 1 in 100 children are diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder and that a high functioning form–Asperger’s syndrome–is central to her latest work.
Jacob Hunt is an extremely verbal, smart 18-year-old with a steel trap mind for facts and figures. His “Aspie” obsession: analyzing crime scenes with lightening speed. Yet, what Jacob cannot do is hold eye contact, make friends, read subtle yet essential social nuances, maintain even a minimal sense of flexibility, nor say “I love you.” Even to his mom.
Serious trouble with the law–nearly every parent of a child with high functioning autism’s fear–occurs when Jacob’s social skills tutor is found dead. Jacob is arrested for her murder and his once precisely ordered world of exactly followed rules at home and elsewhere spirals desperately out of control….
I have a confession. After submitting my press credentials and knowing I was approved to receive a review copy of House Rules, which was en route to my mail box, one of my best friends–a university English professor and also a mother of a teen with autism–warned me that her husband has just completed the book and “it was very, very dark.” Dang. I was in a quandary. I don’t do dark. Even in my favorite genre of Southern fiction. No matter how well-written–and Robbie assured me this was beautifully crafted. Since my daughter’s diagnosis with autism 13 years ago, I’ve used this avoidance technique as a way to keep emotionally buoyant. For me, the realities of living with autism are too real and have their own darkness lurking. I don’t read things that will add to the weight of my emotion-laden journey, no matter how seemingly benign.
So, I turned to The Fiance, who consumed and was consumed by the book’s 532 pages in two days, leaving him impressed with Picoult’s literary artistry and convinced that he has Asperger’s….He doesn’t. But, he’s mighty close. In addition to possessing many of the obsessive, brilliant and quirky characteristics of the disorder, he is close to the world of autism because of his relationship to my family, and, because he also worked as a mental health professional serving a number of clients on the autism spectrum. Thus, he writes from this first-hand perspective:
The novelist expertly dissected the nuances of this condition, allowing them to be easily understood by the reader, while at the same time weaving them into an expertly chiseled plot.
Throughout this engrossing read, she integrates multiple points of view on how the characteristics of Asperger’s affect the individual with the disorder, their family, and others outside of their nuclear structure. She does this without having an individual protagonist. Each character’s voice is separated by different type fonts. While not being a unique technique, it’s masterfully executed.
I was struck by Picoult’s sensitivity in describing autism and Asperger’s , having worked and lived with people who have autism. I know this world and I don’t see how she could accurately portray this condition without having lived and worked with it herself.* Many times when someone does extensive research and then tries to explain it, it comes across as pedantic and overly intellectual. She’s had to do the same amount of research, yet she explains it in a very naturalistic manner that does not belie the technical research she had to do.
One example is where the author describes Jacob, the character with autism, as having a technical objection to a fictional t.v. crime series: ‘[…] using a small-particle agent followed by ninhydrin, when in reality, you’re supposed to use ninhydrin first.’ This is a classic example of how some people with Asperger’s must have an accurate, sequential order of how things progress. When order or routine are violated, many persons with Asperger’s are compelled to set the record straight.
I rarely read fiction, yet, I found the book to be one of the most entertaining books I’ve read in years.” –“The Fiance, aka: M. Dee Hamilton
Kudos to Picoult for integrating this difficult reality of autism into contemporary literature. For some, it will be an introduction to our enigmatic world for some, which may lead them to greater understanding and, hopefully, increased compassion to those who are differently abled and for their families who love them.
*As The Fiance kept me abreast during each lengthy phone call while he read the book, I knew that Picoult had to have some close connection to the autism community. A family member. A best friend’s offspring. I discovered it in the acknowledgment page. Picoult states she spoke to numerous people with Asperger’s syndrome, including more than a dozen parents and their children, and author and occupational therapist Ronna Hochbein, who works with children who have autism. Picoult conducted numerous face-to-face interviews with families and formed an in-depth relationship, cultivated for this book, with a particular teen who has Asperger’s.
House Rules is not the first book of Picoult’s that has dealt with gut-wrenching issues of families coping with disability/illness. Her book, My Sister’s Keeper was recently made into a major motion picture.
I’ll be donating my press review copy of House Rules to the Autism Society of Middle Tennessee‘s extensive library, which has a copy of my book also for check out (and for sale): From Heartache to Hope: Middle Tennessee Families Living with Autism.