Thursday, January 19, 2012

House Rules: Agony and Wonder

We have rules in our house:

1. Clean up your own messes.

2. Tell the truth.

3. Brush your teeth twice a day.

4. Don't be late for school.

5. Take care of your brother; he's the only one you've got.

~House Rules, Jodi Picoult


As I sat down at the computer to compose this book review, I got a bit nervous. What, really, could I say about the book I just finished reading, House Rules, published in 2010? I'm not a book reviewer for The NY Times (I wonder how the literati at The Times view book bloggers?). How will I convey my experience with the book, as well as its basic premise, with as few spoilers as possible? It's a lot to contend with, and sometimes I feel lazy, or not quite up to the task. What makes it even more difficult, in the case of a novel by Jodi Picoult, is that her well-researched works are quite long; this adds to the pressure. How forceful or thoughtful can I be in just a few paragraphs? Will I be able to do the book any amount of justice?


Slowly, over the course of several weeks, chapter by chapter, I read House Rules, which is written from the perspectives of five main characters in the book: Emma, Jacob, and Theo Hunt, and Oliver Bond and Rich Matson. The format of the book worked well for me; due to time constraints, I'd read a few chapters at a sitting, and looked forward to the next session with the book. Short chapters, written from multiple perspectives (in varying fonts), made them easy to read, a bit at a time, day by day.

House Rules is a novel about the great toll Asperger's syndrome, and others' lack of understanding about it, take on the Hunt family, and subsequently their small community in Vermont. For years, Emma Hunt, Jacob and Theo's mother, has been struggling emotionally, working as an advice writer for the newspaper. Her husband, Henry, left the family many years ago, and started a new family. Emma is very dedicated to helping her son, Jacob, an 18-year-old with Asperger's syndrome. She tries to help Jacob by providing special foods and supplements, and hires a tutor to help him, Jess Oligvy. Life in the Hunt family revolves around Jacob, which takes a toll on his younger brother, Theo, who develops a bad habit of breaking into the homes of others and stealing small items. Although in some ways Jacob is absolutely brilliant, he takes things too literally and lacks the ability to connect and communicate with people, and his autism gets him into serious trouble. Because of his great interest in forensic analysis, along with his inability to communicate with others, Jacob is accused of murdering his attractive tutor, Jess.

Jodi Picoult is a very skillful writer, and her words brought her characters and the story to life. As I read this gripping book, I became anxious about a few things. First and foremost, I hated having to wait to find out the truth about what happened. I wanted to know, I needed to know, sooner rather than later (this was also the case when I read her novel, The Pact). I did not skip to the ending of the book, though, because one of my few "reading rules" is that I wait and delay my gratification. So, I continued to read--and hope. I wanted the truth to come out more quickly than it did, but I understand why it did not, could not (even though I was in agony).

Secondly, I started to think about Asperger's syndrome. My knowledge about Asperger's was quite limited before I read this book; I only knew that those afflicted were supposed to be highly intelligent. In the book, Jacob has Asperger's syndrome, which means that he is extremely smart, but also affected and afflicted neurologically in various ways, and his ability to communicate with others is severely restricted and limited. I think we live in an age of over diagnoses (including self-diagnoses) of conditions and syndromes, but I couldn't help wondering if I could be somewhat autistic myself; then I started to think about certain family members, and others who might also be (which soon led me to wonder if autism could develop later in life, well beyond the childhood years?). With regard to myself, though, I believe I'm too empathetic, social, and flexible to be autistic. But the book makes you think. If someone has an encyclopedic knowledge about a subject does that make them an "Aspie", or just someone with a profound interest in something? (Questions lead to more questions, and as I type this on the computer I even wonder if computer use could contribute or even create forms of autism?) I think, though, that the difference is a matter of degree and extremeness, and the book makes a good attempt to distinguish between what's "normal" and what isn't, although I still wondered about the line between the two at times. House Rules, like other books by this author, impels you to wonder and to question things.

I'm looking forward to starting a new novel by Jodi Picoult for this reading challenge soon, Sing You Home. If you'd like to join this challenge, feel free to grab the button. Please visit The Jodi Picoult Project Page I created for more details or to add your review link (if you don't have a blog, but wish to participate, please email me). As always, I welcome your comments, and thank you for reading.


  1. You wrote a very thoughtful review; enjoyed reading it. I really loved this one as it helped my to understand Aspergers better and some of the issues my coworkers daughter deals with.

    Sing You Home was a favorite of mine. Enjoy.

    1. Thanks, Diane. I can't wait to read Sing You Home!

  2. Great review! I haven't read this author in awhile, but I do enjoy her books. If I had more time, I'd join in your Project. It sounds like fun.

  3. I read this book and thought it did a good job with explaining the realities of life with an Aspergers patient. And a fellow blogger whose son has Asperger's says that Picoult got it right. To me, that was the value of this book. I like Picoult but I'm beginning to wish she would break out of her self-imposed plot structure that always seems to focus on a legal case.

  4. I only read a few of her books. I haven't read on in a year or two.

  5. I haven't read anything by Jodi Picoult and I think it is because she picks such difficult thought provoking subjects. I know that the content will upset me at some point. Silly when you think about it.

  6. Very insightful review. I haven't read anything by Jodi Picoult and this makes me want to give her books a try. This is the kind of novel I would enjoy.

  7. I loved your review and think that some of the aspects of this story sound really interesting, but I am not really a huge fan of Picoult, and might not read this book due to some of the reactions that I have to her writing. Though I can't say that I have been swayed to read any of her books, this one does really pique my interest, so perhaps I might have to give it a try, and it was your intelligently rendered and emotionally resonant review that has made me see this. Thank you, Suko, for posting this wonderful review for us today.

  8. I loved your review Suko. This sounds like an interesting and thought provoking novel. You bring up some interesting points when it comes to Autism. I'll be reading Picoult for the project. I can't wait because I have heard she writes books that make you think.
    Enjoy your weekend :)

  9. Naida, her books definitely make you think about the issues and subjects found in her work. I think you'd really like her writing, and I look forward to your JP review(s).

    (I truly appreciate all the comments, but due to time constraints, I cannot reply to each and every one.)

  10. A novel is a goog way to discover the difficulties people have when they are ill and to make us think about what it is to be different. It's a good way too for ill people and their family to share what they live. This one seems to be very interesting. Thanks for sharing it with us .

  11. I have yet to read anything by Jodi Picoult-maybe in 2012 -I enjoyed as always your excellent post


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