publication date: 2007
In this expansive book, Jodi Picoult explored what happens to a community when tragedy strikes. The book’s title came from the amount of time it took a character to go on a shooting rampage through his high school. The book’s focus was not the nineteen minutes of tragedy, however. Instead, Nineteen Minutes focused on the years leading up to the shooting and the far-reaching aftermath. Picoult ably demonstrated that people usually aren’t all bad or all good. And tragedies don’t happen in a vacuum.
The strength of the book was its characters. Picoult created and examined almost every person that a reader could imagine that would be affected by the shooting, the conditions leading up to it, and its consequences. Most characters were interesting and described in detail.
Picoult looked at the young shooter, Peter Houghton, and his childhood, at the bullies who tormented him daily, at the lead investigator, the judge, the defense attorney, and Peter’s childhood best friend. The book was especially effective when it focused on the parents. For example, here’s a passage when Peter’s mom Lacy goes to visit him in jail and witnesses another mother/prisoner reunion:
A man with a shaved head and sleeves of tattoos up and down his arms headed toward Lacy. She shivered – was that a swastika inked onto his forehead? “Hi, Mom,” he murmured, and Lacy watched the woman’s eyes strip away the tattoos and the bare scalp and the orange jumpsuit to see a little boy catching tadpoles in a mudhole behind their house. Everyone, Lacy thought, is somebody’s son.
The book also explored the parents of Peter’s shooting victims and the parents of the kids who survived the tragedy. All of these characters were three-dimensional and intricate.
Another set of compelling characters were the shooter’s childhood friend, Josie, and her boyfriend, Matt, who was killed in the shooting. The book showed the power plays that can exist in a relationship, especially one between immature partners.
There were a few characters that Picoult did not give their due. For example, there was Mr. McCabe, a closeted gay teacher who seemed to exist only to be an odd red herring concerning Peter’s sexuality and to showcase gay stereotypes. There was also a love story that seemed contrived and unnecessary.
Generally, the writing was quite good, although at times it bordered on the cliché. However, there was an exception to the book’s largely effective writing: Picoult seemingly needed to imbue chapter and passage endings with meaning and weight, to the point where the sentences became meaningless. For example, here’s the end of a chapter that showed a day-to-day moment between the shooter and his mother:
She watched him trudge back up the hill to the house, and then she turned her attention back to the deer. Lacy would have to feed them until the snow melted. Once you started taking care of them, you had to follow through, or they just wouldn’t make it.
I assumed the last line was supposed to show a parallelism between Lacy taking care of deer and Lacy mothering her son. But if that’s what the sentence was supposed to show, it didn’t really make sense. There are lots of children who “make it” after their parents don’t “follow through,” and vice versa. And wouldn’t a child be much less likely to “make it,” if a parent hadn’t taken care of them from the beginning – as opposed to the deer? Many chapters and passages ended like this, with sentences that were supposed to be weighty and clever but just seemed more heavy and obtuse.
Overall, this was an interesting, well-paced read that I would recommend.
4/6: worth reading
P.S. The cover of the book was stupid and had nothing to do with the content.
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