Defending Jacob ★★★★
Delacorte Press, 2012
I’m trying to put my finger on what makes Defending Jacob such a compulsive read. Landay clearly has a killer storytelling instinct. The pacing of this novel is near perfect. He drops just enough clues, teases with just enough foreshadowing to keep the reader completely engrossed at all times. I started listening to this as an audiobook and finished it in print, not being able to turn the pages fast enough.
Defending Jacob is not a unique plot by any stretch. In fact, when I first heard about this book I couldn’t help but think of the movie Before and After starring Meryl Streep and Liam Neeson, where their teen son Jacob (yep, he’s Jacob too) is accused of murdering his girlfriend and it tears the family apart.
This book is much better than that movie though. Defending Jacob does a great job at looking at issues of guilt, innocence and culpability. It dissects the shortcomings of the legal system and the theatrics of courtroom proceedings without getting all preachy and legal mumbo-jumbo about it. It cuts to the heart of family dynamics and the parent-child relationship, poking at the difficult questions — how far would you go to protect your child if they were innocent? guilty?
And there’s the rub — fourteen year old Jacob is standing trial for murder and we don’t know if he’s been falsely accused or not. There are things that point to his innocence, but also actions that point to his guilt. Even though it is a much denser read and told using a very different narrative voice, We Need to Talk About Kevin explores some of the same terrain of mental pathology and the genetic and external factors that combine to result in antisocial behaviors. For anyone who isn’t sick of arguing the nature/nurture debate, Defending Jacob raises some interesting questions concerning the existence of a “murder gene” and whether violence can be passed down through the generations like eye color.
I liked that this book kept me guessing right up to the end. I loved that when it seemed to be wrapping up, there was one more sharp swerve to the left to come.