Sunday, April 21, 2013

Defending Jacob by William Landay

Defending Jacob  What would you do if your child was charged with a crime you believe he did not commit?  How far would you go to protect your family?  Alternatively, if you suspect your child of having intentionally harmed another person what is your duty as a parent to your child and to his potential victims?  Can violent tendencies be passed from one generation to the next through DNA?  These are the questions raised by Defending Jacob.

The Jacob of the title is the 14-year-old son of Andrew "Andy" and Laurie Barber.  They live in Newton, a small Massachusetts town where Andy is an assistant district attorney.  One morning at work Andy gets a call that the body of a 14-year-old boy named Ben has been found in a nearby park, a park where many of the town's kids, including Jacob, pass through on their way to school.  Ben was a classmate of Jacob, making this case a personal one for Andy.  He is convinced that a pedophile who happens to frequent the park is responsible for the crime but there are others who think the suspect pool should be broadened.  It isn't long before the investigation begins to turn away from the pedophile and toward Jacob.

Wow!  That was my immediate reaction after I finished the last sentence.  The story is told from Andy's point of view, with excerpts from the transcript of a grand jury proceeding mixed in.  The question on every one's mind is did he do it?  Did Jacob stab Ben in the chest?  One of the things I liked about this book is that the author doesn't take the easy way out and make the victim a saint.  Neither the victim nor the alleged murderer is entirely sympathetic or unsympathetic.  The victim, Ben, was not the nicest kid.  He was a bully who teased the less popular kids, focusing particularly on Jacob.  For his part, Jacob was also not the nicest kid.  Even his best friend Derek says that sometimes he didn't like being around Jacob because of some of things Jacob said.  Oh, and there's the fact that Jacob likes to read and write stories about people being tortured.

Andy is convinced of his son's innocence.  He has worked too hard to let himself think anything else, having distanced himself from his own violent family.  Andy deliberately chose a different path from the one his father and grandfather took, not only avoiding a life of a crime but becoming a person who puts criminals in prison.  That his own son, who grew up in a loving home, who has never really wanted for anything, could willingly do harm to another person under any circumstances is inconceivable to Andy. 

Laurie, Jacob's mother and Andy's wife, is less certain.  The novel is completely from Andy's point of view so there is only Andy's impression of what Laurie thinks and feels.  This aspect of the book frustrated me, though I understood the reason for this once I got to the last chapter.  Laurie came off as weak in mind and spirit, too sheltered to handle the reality of the situation.  The way Andy tells it Laurie insists on believing that simply talking things out can solve any problem.  Her son's arrest seems like a big misunderstanding to her and she seems to think everything could be set right if they all just sat down and talked about their feelings.  She is surprised when Ben's parents, with whom she was once friendly, feel differently and rebuff her attempts to communicate.  I really wanted to hear what Laurie thought in her words as Andy's version of her seemed patronizing and unfair.  Afterall, giving credence to Laurie's doubt would only serve to undermine Andy's certainty.

Andy, as a trial lawyer, can only seem to focus on the end game - on getting a "not guilty" verdict.  He thinks he is being strong but Andy does not fully appreciate the situation any better than Laurie.  Andy has tunnel vision and is unable to think beyond the trial and its outcome.  Laurie, in contrast, seems to be thinking about bigger questions.  Could her son be guilty, and if he is, what does that mean for her and Andy as parents?  If Jacob is innocent and Laurie doubts him, then she is bound to feel like a terrible mother.  But if he is guilty, then Laurie is left to wonder how she ended up raising a murderer and if she could have done anything to protect his victim.  There is no easy path for her.

Defending Jacob began slowly, but once Jacob becomes the main suspect the story grabbed me and never let go.  The ending is intense.  Just when it seemed I had figured nearly everything out there was one final twist.  In case it isn't clear yet, I really liked this book and would recommend it to anyone looking for a good thriller.

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