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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
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