Monday, March 5, 2012

Defending Jacob

By William Landay
New York, Delacorte Press, 2012
421 pages     Fiction

Jacob is 14 when his family’s world falls apart. Any parents or grandparents of 14-year-old boys know that they are totally self-absorbed and enigmatic, and Jacob is all of that and perhaps more. To the astonishment of his parents, he is accused of stabbing and killing a classmate in the park on the way to school one morning. Jacob is so inscrutable that his parents have no idea what he knows, what he feels, or how he is reacting to the arrest and the ensuing trial. 

There is, of course, much more to the set-up than that. Andy, the father, is the narrator of the story and is the Assistant District Attorney who is first assigned to investigate the murder. Andy is a very good narrator. He is insightful, knowledgeable, and all-seeing except, perhaps, when it comes to his son. When Jacob is accused, Andy is taken off the case, and the prosecution is given to a junior—and very ambitious—assistant district attorney. Conflict #1.

Conflict #2 is the secret Andy has been harboring his whole life—his family has a background of murderous men, and his father is in prison for life for murder. His wife, Laurie, has never known this aspect of his life and when she finds out, she becomes increasingly more devastated and conflicted. She begins to doubt the innocence of her son. The psychologist is telling them that Jacob may be damaged, that he has a “heart two sizes too small,” and that he has very little capacity for empathy. This would be something that a mother would know and some aspects of Jacob’s nature become more apparent to Laurie than to Andy. Deep in her heart, she believes that he might be guilty.

Conflict#3.  Andy believes his son is innocent and that a known pedophile may be the guilty party.  The reader never knows whether Andy truly believes in the innocence of his son or if he is playing the lawyer’s role of making the case. The family lawyer says: “The question is, how far will you go for Jacob? What will you do to protect your son?” And I am not sure we readers ever figure that out. Yet, we trust Andy’s instincts, and we become convinced that Jacob could not possibly have committed the crime. Perhaps Jacob lacks empathy, but does that make him a killer?

The plot twists are dizzying and the conclusion is so devastating that I could not go to sleep after I finished reading last night. I had a hard time separating Jacob in the book from my 14-year-old real-life grandson with his baggy pants, gray hoodie over his head, and his non-communicative stare. How would I have felt if this had happened in our family? How far would we go to protect him?

There are many serious issues discussed in the book—the role that social media plays in the lives of teenagers; the nature of genetics; and much more seriously, the very source of evil. Years ago, I read a book by Scott Peck, People of the Lie: The Hope for Healing Human Evil. After I read that book, I spent a long time thinking about the source of evil and its role in human nature. I certainly kept People of the Lie in my mind as I was reading Defending Jacob. The reviewer in the Washington Post asks a similar question: “Is it possible that some people lack free will and are driven toward violence by genetic inheritance?” 

Defending Jacob is #4 on the New York Times best seller list for March 4, 2012. It deserves to be there. I received my copy from the publisher a couple of months ago where it languished until I was reminded of it when it appeared in reviews in national newspapers. This book is for all you lovers of mysteries, legal thrillers, and shattering endings. Author William Landay says that the imprint of Scott Turow’s Presumed Innocent “is all over this book.”  If you loved Presumed Innocent, you will love Defending Jacob as well.

William Landay’s website:
Audio interview with William Landay:

No comments: