Book Review – Nineteen Minutes by Jodi Picoult

It took nineteen minutes for one student to end the lives of ten people and permanently alter the futures of countless others. As usual, Jodi Picoult has taken on an emotionally involved and hot topic for her novel, Nineteen Minutes. And as usual, Picoult has shown that what things usually boil down to, the pieces of a story that get remembered, are only the tip of the iceberg. While most would remember the events of nineteen minutes, Jodi Picoult sets out to make sure that readers remember that there are more than nineteen minutes leading up to those events.

Bullying has become a hot topic in the past year or so as celebrities have come forward to raise awareness and use their influence the help end the emotional and physical torment that make so many feel so alone. The bullying experienced by Picoult’s school shooter, Peter Houghton, is put on display through shifts in time, all organized in relation how far they were before or after that day, those nineteen minutes. Picoult once again manages to present enough sides to the story to explain actions without condoning them. She is a master of painting in shades of grey.

There was, of course, a long, drawn out, detailed trial. Luckily, it didn’t focus too much on the forensic details that have made the trial scenes in many of her other novels, at times, tedious. This novel was not without her signature last minute twist, though I didn’t find it as fulfilling as the buildup promised. This turned out to be the third novel of Picoult’s that I read in which the defense lawyer was Jordan McAfee. It was the first time that I noticed he was a recurring character. That made me realize how, while the novels and their subject matters always tackle memorable issues (largely because they’re such controversial issues), the characters at the heart of these stories are less so.

Though I’ve always found her use of perspective and the way she shifts to provide the reader with so many pieces of the puzzle, in Nineteen Minutes the voices of the characters blurred to the point where they began to sound the same, they lacked personality. They all seemed to have similar, sentimental, melodramatic insights into human nature with regards to grief and the need to assign blame, to pinpoint the place where things went wrong. There were just too many and they reached a point where they began cancelling each other out, where it was hard to tell if she was drifting from her focus because she was trying to be thorough in her representation or if it was because even she realized the rest of them were beginning to sound too redundant.

I was also surprised a lot in the course of this novel. Not so much by the plot, but by incidents she chose as a backdrop to certain scenes; or by what she chose not to include. She avoided too much mention of Columbine but included an extensive scene regarding 9/11. Considering the time frame she established and the ages of her characters, this surprised me. I’m only a year or two older than her fictional characters, Josie and Peter. I remember almost as much about the day of the Columbine shootings as 9/11. Given the nature of the plot, I think that there was a lot she could have used regarding Columbine that would have been more relevant to the story she was telling (and a lot of opportunities that would have fit her style; for instance, that it occurred the day after the Boston Marathon or that it happened during a week that most New England schools were on April vacation with the news taking over most of the stations her characters would have been watching). Looking at the dates of the story, I couldn’t help but recall the Virginia Tech shooting and struggled to remember how and when this novel was released in relation to that incident.

Finally, the novel’s resolution felt forced. This was the first time that, on reaching the end, it felt like Picoult had painted herself into a corner regarding resolution. Even though there are very few happy resolutions to her other novels, there always seemed to be a note of hope for the futures of her characters, but the attempt here was hollow, predictable. It’s perfectly okay for a novel to end on a pessimistic note, as long as it is sincere, as long as it rings true to the characters and the story. Though most of the novel was compelling, its tendency to tread water with the unnecessary and the overcomplicated caused it to drag more than it should.

 

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