Sunday, September 30, 2007

Nineteen Minutes

I've been a Jodi Picoult skeptic for a while now. I think it started when I found a big table of Picoult books upstairs at my local Barnes & Noble and noticed how similar all the books seemed to be, how interchangeable. I knew Picoult's name from having seen it on bestseller lists and that made me curious enough to spend a few minutes going through the books on the table to see if I had been missing anything. I walked away empty-handed that day and didn't give Picoult another thought until I found the audio version of Nineteen Minutes at my local library. I always try to have an audio book going for when I'm driving or doing some mindless task around the house and a book about a school shooting sounded interesting so I decided this might be a painless way to sample Picoult's writing. I was hoping to find that my first impression of her books was wrong and that I had unfairly underrated her. It didn't happen.

Nineteen Minutes is the story of a New Hampshire high school shooting that resulted in ten deaths and the wounding of nineteen others, some of whom were left with physical disabilities and mental scars that would be with them for the rest of their lives. It is Peter Houghton's story. Peter Houghton, a sensitive boy with few social skills or friends, was always different in the eyes of his schoolmates. He was a natural target for bullies out to impress their own friends and his life was all downhill from the first day of kindergarten when his new lunch box was thrown out of the school bus window onto the highway where it was crushed by oncoming traffic.

By the time that Peter was a high school junior, the same group of bullies had been slamming him into lockers, punching him, verbally abusing him and otherwise generally intimidating him for as long as he could remember. After sixth grade, he had even been abandoned by the one close friend he had had up to then when she decided that she wanted to be popular and realized that her friendship with Peter was going to make that goal impossible to achieve. So when Peter snapped, he snapped big time, and deciding that it was payback time at Sterling High School he changed a city forever in just nineteen bloody minutes.

Nineteen Minutes is not a terrible book but it is a disappointing one because it could have been so much more than it turned out to be. Jodi Picoult offers nothing new to the discussion of school shootings, what causes them, or how they can be prevented. Instead, she deals in stereotypical characters and a sideshow romance that add little but pages to her novel. Rather than developing the characters of some of the bullies in the story to give insight into why some people get such great pleasure from humiliating those physically weaker than themselves, she offers up cardboard characters like Detective Patrick DuCharme whose constant one-liners give him more the personality of a stand-up comedian than that of a competent detective. She spends more time developing a romance between DuCharme and Judge Alex Cormier, the mother of one of the victims, than she does in trying to explain why school shootings have become so common in recent years. I did not expect, or want, a romance novel from Picoult but I got one.

Picoult's pacing of her story is disappointing because of the way that she so gradually builds up the suspense and mystery surrounding what happened on that fateful day only to end it all abruptly with somewhat of a surprise ending and a quick summary of what happened after the trial. Less time spent on an unnecessary romantic sideshow and more on a better written ending would have made this a much stronger book.

The audio version of Nineteen Minutes is read by actress Carol Monda who turns in a competent reading of this 18-disc recording. My only quarrel with Monda's performance is the "little boy" voice and cadence that she consistently uses for all of her male characters regardless of their age. That quirk made it difficult to take some of her characters seriously and may have contributed to my negative impression of Detective DuCharme.

Rated at: 2.5

9 comments:

  1. I can't believe you didn't like Picoult! I love her. Her last two books have been a little disappointing, I admit, but I really love her earlier books. Don't give up on her until you try Salem Falls, at least!

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  2. I have only read one Picoult book, Plain Truth and I found it was a tremendous disappointment. But it seems like we are in the minority, so I may give her another go. I won't read this one though, thanks for the tip. Maybe I'll go with Susan and read Salem Falls. Great review!

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  3. Susan, I'm not sure that I have another Picoult book in me, but I'll keep that title in mind. Thanks.

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  4. Jamie, we really are in the minority and it seems to be a small one, at that. I may give another one of her books a try some day, but it will be a while.

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  5. Sam! Thank you! I am part of an online book club and we read one of Jodi Picoult's book.. It was my first... It's called "The tenth Circle"... I was very much disappointed.. I have heard so much good about her that I thought I would be swayed by her novel... it didn't happen. I felt like her books follow some kind of formula... plug in the characters change a bit in the story line but the squeleton seems like it came straight out of a "writing a novel for dummies".... no wonder she pops them out so fast... Jodi Picoult's fans: I really don't mean to be offensive or insulting in any way.... I guess I would still read more of her books as it may not be completely fair from me to judge an author on one book... (even though your review kind of confirmed my thoughts)

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  6. Rhita, I get some of that feeling from her writing also...her characters, at least in this one, were made of cardboard instead of flesh (with one or two exceptions, maybe) and I just couldn't get emotionally involved in the story at all. At the risk of offending a bunch of folks, it reminded me of one of those "Hallmark movie" kind of things. :-)

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  7. I have read a few of Picoult's books, bu ti have enjoyed them all. I enjoyed My Sisters JKeeper the best, i promise you would enjoy that one.

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  8. Thanks for the recommendation. I may give her a chance again someday...she's not an author I'm rushing to return to, but you newer know...

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  9. This was a terrific book. I would definitely recommend it to anyone. It is really interesting to see Peter's side of the story. Really makes you think.

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