In my quest to read more fiction as part of this Cannonball Read, I’ve been soliciting recommendations. Some (Gone Girl) seem to roll off of everyone’s tongues. Others, like this one, I’d never heard of and am bummed I didn’t read sooner. It was one of those books that taunted me when it was sitting in my purse during the work day. I read it on the walk to work and the walk home. I chose to read it over watching mindless TV after a long day at work (a rare occurrence for me), and even balanced it on the shelves so I could keep reading it while I brushed my teeth at night. I was engrossed. I have one or two little issues, although even as I write them I realize that they do work pretty well within the book.
Defending Jacob is another first-person narrative, this time told using a flashback device that actually works and really weaves together a tight and interesting book. The narrator is Adam Barber, an assistant DA who prosecutes homicides among other crimes. The flashback device used is Adam testifying at a grand jury hearing set a year or so after the main events of the book. It isn’t discussed in every chapter, but helps frame some parts of the discussion, introducing new components of the story. The homicide in this book is an eighth grade boy found dead in a park on weekday morning. Adam has a son, Jacob, in the same class and after a few days it becomes apparent that Jacob is the main suspect.
The book examines many different components of the issue of facing the possibility that one’s child killed another. It’s not a plea to sympathize with the parents of accused murderers; it’s an exploration of what it must be like, both to see one’s son facing such charges and wondering (or perhaps not wondering) somewhere deep inside if he did it. Does a good parent even entertain the notion? MUST a good parent entertain the notion? What is owed to the child? To society? To one’s spouse? Is the priority the child, and to hell with the marriage? Can a marriage survive that? And what happens to the family, regardless of the guilt of the accused, during and after the trial?
These themes are explored in pretty fantastic detail. While Adam gives us the perspective, because he tells the story as a retrospective, he’s able to lend clarity to what at the time may have seemed muddy or incomprehensible. He and his wife handle their son’s situation very differently, and while the author gets very close to some stereotypes of the dad vs. mom roles, he also builds them out as based more in the character of the individuals. Meaning, yes, the mother seems more emotive than the father, but the father is also a DA. Frankly, I think it would have been an even better, more interesting book if the mother were the DA and the father were a former teacher. Play around a little bit with the gendered expectations.
There are some surprises in the book, but none that come totally out of left field. It’s not predictable but it makes sense, which I think is such a great quality, and hard to come by. I like authors to avoid Deus ex Machina – it’s lazy and frustrating. But come on – we also want a little surprise in our books, right? Landay does it really well.
What most impressed me about the book is that it took a premise – the murder of a 14-year-old-boy – and kept that premise right in the middle while not making it the focus of the book. I wouldn’t describe it as a crime novel, or a thriller, but a book about a family in a very, very difficult situation.
Pick it up. It’s a good read and worth your time.