Feb 23, 2011

The Weeknight Book Club: House Rules by Jodi Picoult


I'm still on my Jodi Picoult blitz at the moment.  Jodi has a new novel, Sing You Home coming out soon so I think now that I'm in the Picoult groove, I'll be trying to get my hands on the Kindle version of it as soon as possible.  It's meant to be about assisted conception and the ethical issues surrounding this.  Given recent events in my life, I'm beginning to wonder if the book may be too confronting for the moment.  Might have to rethink this idea.

I've probably said this in my previous reviews of Picoult novels but reading her work for me is a chance to become fully immersed in the lives of 'real people' who live with chronic medical and social disorders.  Jodi is very skilled at creating fully rounded accounts of just what it's like to live with a disease that permeates every single aspect of not only the patient's life but also those closest to them.  At times, the internal dialogues are so vivid, I find myself getting irritated at characters, so immersed have I become in the action.  Sure, the plots may get predictable at times but it's all about the journey and scenery along the way, sometimes.

House Rules is a novel about Asperger's Syndrome, the sub type of autism where its sufferers are often highly functioning in areas that fascinate them but have crippling social ineptitude and a low threshold for dealing with people or experiences they do not like.  There is a heightened perception of sensation so one of the interventions for people with Asperger's is the use of 'sensory rooms' to try and relax them.  It is implied often that people with Asperger's are 'selfish' in their interaction with others.  They may seem arrogant or condescending due to their poor ability to respond 'appropriately' in social situations.

I am linking to a review and reader discussion of the novel here.

Emma is a single mother who has two children, one of whom (Theo) is 'neurotypical' and the other, Jacob who has Asperger's.  Emma has devoted her life to caring for Jacob and their life is a highly structured routine of colour coded foods, clothing, times to attend school, watch television and even to visit the shops.  Emma has done all she can to see that Jacob leads a normal life by attending school and socializing within the limtis of his illness.  House Rules are what Emma and Theo must follow to the letter in order to reduce the chances of Jacob slipping back into 'meltdowns' and 'stimming' (repetitive flapping actions of the arms).

Jacob's passion in life is forensic science.  He creates his own crime scenes, he religiously watches Crime Busters on television and he has his own crime lab.

Jess Ogilvy is Jacob's social skills tutor.  Jacob is attracted to her however Jess is older and maintains a strictly professional relationship with him.  She also has a boyfriend who really has no empathy for Jacob.  There are times that Jacob does get brave enough to profess his feelings.  However Jess is either oblivious to his actions or else very tactfully chooses to ignore them.

Life is not easy for Jacob's family.  Theo, the younger son, has spent most of his life being 'the afterthought' in his mother's life as she struggles to give Jacob the resources, structure and attention he needs.  Not only does he come off second best in his mother's attention but Jacob also has a habit of ruining every attempt that Theo makes to 'just be one of the guys'.  Theo loves his brother dearly and also knows that he'll be the one responsible for Jacob should their mother no longer be able to care for him.

How can Theo compensate for a lifetime of broken promises and being the outsider at home and school?  He breaks into houses and tries to absorb the lives of 'normal happy families'.  He eats their food, he steals small items but most of all he has a reality break whilst sitting in these homes. 

Unfortunately, one day, he enters the house that Jess is house sitting.  She was surprised in the shower.  Theo leaves in a hurry (dropping the iPod he stole).  Jess is later found dead and partially dressed some distance from her house.  There is evidence to suggest that Jacob was in the house.  Who killed Jess?  How did she die?

The focus of the novel then shifts to Jacob and the aftermath of his being very keen to tell the police what he was doing at the crime scene.  His poor ability to take non verbal cues from the police sees him virtually confessing to the crime. Jacob does not see imprisonment at the end of his talks with the investigators, he sees attention, the chance to 'tell the truth' and possibly a chance to outsmart them.

A common criticism of this novel has been its predictable plot and almost text book approach at 'educating' readers about Asperger's and autism.  I think that these are also strengths of the novel.  The simple plot leaves more room for character development, which is one of Picoult's great strengths.  The amount of research presented about the syndrome I found to be very educational in a very readable way.

House Rules may not be the most suspenseful murder mystery out there but for me, Jodi provided an opportunity to break out from the uneventful stability of my life and to be a 'house guest' in the lives of other people with vastly different lives as I turn the pages of her novels.

PS: I'm currently reading a biography of Wallis Simpson!  There's no murder, mystery, blood or gore involved.  I hope to channel some of the chic, scandal and glamour of the late Wallis S for my next book review.

SSG xxx


  1. Thanks SSG for this wonderful review. I'm a Jodi fan also and must get my hands on this book. I feel sure the content would interest me having worked with students with ASD.

  2. Anne Marie: no problem. It is a very absorbing and well researched novel. I hope you like it.

    SSG xxx

    Sydney Shop Girl blog

  3. I have read this one and enjoyed it.
    I also like My Sister's Keeper and 19 Minutes but find many of her books formulaic.
    I saw her speak about her research methods - specifically the one about the murderer on death row who wants to donate his heart to a relative of his victim. It was so interesting - she is so thorough - almost ethnographic.
    Thanks for the review.

  4. Carly: I hear you about the research side of Picoult's novels. She is so very thorough. Sometimes the formulaic is good. An 'easy' read.

    SSG xxx

  5. I'll have to have a read. I find anything on this subject immensely interesting. Even though it's a fictional murder mystery, I'm interested in her take on it.
    I recently read 'Look Me In The Eye' - written by an adult who grew up with undiagnosed Asperger's. At the time I ordered it I ordered 'Running with Scissors' which was also a great read. What I didn't realise at the time of purchase was that the two authors are brothers.

  6. I read this book while I was in Bali and it couldn't have been more perfect for a holiday read. Agree that her books can be same-same but they are an easy read, always interesting, and always engaging. I'm a fan and will continue to be!

  7. How interesting, your review makes me want to read this novel. I have read a couple of her books, one about the Amish, which I really enjoyed - in a London book group where an American lady had grown up near an Amish community and had friends who were Amish so could give us some fascinating insights.

  8. Oh, I loved this, and I'm a huge Picoult fan. I have all of her books, and am eagerly awaiting the release of the new one. Glad you're enjoying them too!

  9. Jodi writes medical problems well. I don't think I've ever found a discrepancy in her books (unlike others...why people don't understand the difference between hyper and hypotension is another story).
    I'm hoping to pick up her latest book on my holiday and add it to the ever growing pile.


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