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House Rules: A Novel

by Jodi Picoult
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Product Details

  • Publisher: Atria
  • Publishing date: 02/03/2010
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-13: 9780743296434
  • ISBN: 0743296435


The astonishing new novel from #1 New York Times bestselling author Jodi Picoult about a family torn apart by an accusation of murder.

They tell me I'm lucky to have a son who's so verbal, who is blisteringly intelligent, who can take apart the broken microwave and have it working again an hour later. They think there is no greater hell than having a son who is locked in his own world, unaware that there's a wider one to explore. But try having a son who is locked in his own world, and still wants to make a connection. A son who tries to be like everyone else, but truly doesn't know how.

Jacob Hunt is a teenage boy with Asperger's syndrome. He's hopeless at reading social cues or expressing himself well to others, and like many kids with AS, Jacob has a special focus on one subject--in his case, forensic analysis. He's always showing up at crime scenes, thanks to the police scanner he keeps in his room, and telling the cops what they need to do...and he's usually right. But then his town is rocked by a terrible murder and, for a change, the police come to Jacob with questions. All of the hallmark behaviors of Asperger's--not looking someone in the eye, stimulatory tics and twitches, flat affect--can look a lot like guilt to law enforcement personnel. Suddenly, Jacob and his family, who only want to fit in, feel the spotlight shining directly on them. For his mother, Emma, it's a brutal reminder of the intolerance and misunderstanding that always threaten her family. For his brother, Theo, it's another indication of why nothing is normal because of Jacob. And over this small family the soul-searing question looms: Did Jacob commit murder?

Emotionally powerful from beginning to end, House Rules looks at what it means to be different in our society, how autism affects a family, and how our legal system works well for people who communicate a certain way--and fails those who don't.

Explore the reading group guide for House Rules.

A Conversation with Author Jodi Picoult

Q: How did you first decide upon Asperger's Syndrome as the focus for this novel?

A: I have a cousin who's autistic. Several times, my aunt found herself in a public place trying to control one of his meltdowns--and people who didn't understand why she was restraining him contacted authorities and made allegations of abuse. As he got older, and moved into a group home, his frustrations became more intense because of his size--he'd break in windows with his fist, for example--and several times the police were called. It got me thinking that the legal system works really well, if you communicate a certain way. But if you don't, it all goes to Hell in a handbasket really quickly. A lot of the hallmark behaviors of autism--flat affect, stimming, not looking someone in the eye--could very easily be misinterpreted as signs of guilt.

Q: You have been known to do extensive research about the topics in your books. What was the research process like for this novel?

A: In addition to meeting with attorneys to get the legal information accurate, I met with six teens with Asperger's, and their parents--face to face. Even though some of the kids were very awkward in a direct setting, I needed to experience that to understand how the rest of the world would feel coming in contact with Jacob. But kids with Asperger's, who are so smart, shine when you let them answer questions on paper. So another 35 teens and their parents answered lengthy questionnaires for me about themselves, their reactions to situations, their lives, their hopes, their frustrations. It made for some incredible reading, and many of their direct experiences wound up in Jacob's life. One of these young women with Asperger's Syndrome was so detailed in her writing and so open about her experiences that she volunteered to help me further. She read the manuscript for accuracy and told me, based on Jacob's voice, what seemed consistent and what, in her opinion, Jacob would never say or do. The last bit of research I did was incredibly fun--I shadowed a CSI for a week. I got to learn blood spatter analysis, to do presumptive semen tests, to check out crime scenes, and to observe an autopsy. It was fascinating!

Q: When your central characters are in a real-life situation that affects so many people around the world--in this case, dealing with the effects of Asperger's Syndrome and autism on a family--is there more pressure on you as the author to "get it right"?

A: It doesn't really matter whether it's Asperger's or a rape victim or a cancer patient--when research subjects open up to me with such honesty I ALWAYS feel a responsibility to "get it right."

Q: If you could say one thing to the families who are dealing with the effects of having an autistic child, what would it be?

A: That you're not alone--and that, hopefully, more and more people will come to understand that a child who's "different from" is not one who is "lesser than."

Q: In a previous interview, you referred to your novels taking part in a long line of "moral and ethical fiction." When you first began writing, did you have the intention of using your work as a springboard for conversation about moral and ethical issues? Or did that come later on?

A: I think I started gravitating toward that sort of niche as I kept writing. I have always written about subjects that engage me--questions I can't answer myself. They apparently tend to be big moral and ethical issues! But I never lose sight of the fact that before I was a writer, I was a teacher. I still am. My classroom's just gotten a little bigger.

Q: House Rules is your seventeenth novel. Do you feel your writing has changed since your first novel? If so, was it an intentional change, or is it something you've noticed over time?

A: I think my writing has become "cleaner." By that I mean that technically I've improved--I might turn a metaphor in five words now, where years ago, it would have taken me a paragraph. I can't say it was intentional--but you know what they say about practice making perfect…!

Q: Why did you choose to end the book when you did, rather than going into what happens to the characters in the aftermath of the trial?

A: Because at heart, this is Jacob's book. And remember, to Jacob, there was never any real mystery here, was there?

Q: Could you talk for a moment about Emma's character and her struggles throughout the book? You've said that your characters' voices come to you, that they take on a life of their own. Did you find yourself agreeing with Emma's choices as the novel progressed?

A: I think Emma is a very typical, very overwhelmed mom. A lot of the moms of autistic kids I met are so consumed with being their child's advocate that there's no room for anything else--least of all themselves. It's why so many marriages end in divorce, when a child is diagnosed on the spectrum. Emma's journey in this book is one of unwinding--allowing herself to define herself as more than just Jacob's mother, because that's been completely eroded by his autism.

Q: If the main characters in this novel had favorite books, what do you think they would be?

A: What a great question! I think Jacob's would be, clearly, anything written by Dr. Henry Lee. Oliver would love Presumed Innocent by Turow--it's probably why he decided to go to law school. Theo would read Vonnegut. He wouldn't understand Vonnegut, but he'd think it's the kind of thing a rebel would read. Rich--I think he's a closet softy, the kind of guy who's got a dog-eared copy of The Sun Also Rises in his nightstand. And dare I hope that Emma reads Jodi Picoult novels?

Q: Could you give us a glimpse into your next project?

A: Sing You Home, the 2011 book, is the story of Zoe Baxter, who has spent ten years trying to get pregnant. After multiple miscarriages and infertility issues, it looks like her dream is about to come true--she is seven months pregnant. But a terrible turn of events takes away the baby she has already fallen for; and breaks apart her marriage to Max. In the aftermath, she throws herself into her career as a music therapist--using music clinically to soothe burn victims in a hospital; to help Alzheimer's patients connect with the present; to provide solace for hospice patients. When Vanessa--a guidance counselor--asks her to work with a suicidal teen, their relationship moves from business to friendship and then, to Zoe's surprise, blossoms into love. When Zoe allows herself to start thinking of having a family, again, she remembers that there are still frozen embryos that were never used by herself and Max.

Meanwhile, Max has found peace at the bottom of a bottle--until he is redeemed by an evangelical church, whose charismatic pastor--Clive Lincoln--has vowed to fight the "homosexual agenda" that has threatened traditional family values in America. But this mission becomes personal for Max, when Zoe and her same-sex partner say they want permission to raise his unborn child.

Sing You Home explores what it means to be gay in today's world, and how reproductive science has outstripped the legal system. Are embryos people or property? What challenges do same-sex couples face when it comes to marriage and adoption? What happens when religion and sexual orientation--two issues that are supposed to be justice-blind--enter the courtroom? And most importantly, what constitutes a "traditional family" in today's day and age?

Also--in a very unique move--readers will get to literally hear Zoe Baxter's voice. I am collaborating with Ellen Wilber, a dear friend who is also a very talented musician, to create a CD of original songs, which will correspond to each of the chapters. This CD will be packaged with each hardcover book. So--literally--stay tuned!

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  • The LAST Picoult novel I will waste my time reading.
    From Amazon

    As an author she is simply all over the place. You can never be sure what you're going to get; a good read like Nineteen Minutes; a great read like My Sisters Keeper, or a waste of time like House Rules: A Novel I mean all anyone had to do, his mother, his lawyer, anyone, was ask Jacob what happened. But for 500 pages no one thinks to do that.

  • Predictable and over researched to be real.
    From Amazon

    While I appreciate that Picoult has decided to bring the issue of autism to the forefront with this novel, as a parent of an "Aspie" I felt that Jacob was over the top. There is a fine line between High Functioning Autism and Asperger Syndrome, and in my opinion, Jacob fell more into the HFA definition. It seemed as if Ms. Picoult took every stereotypical trait of a child with AS and autism and put them in Jacob. Most Aspie's are nowhere near as severe as Jacob. As a result everything in the story regarding Jacob's diagnosis seemed textbook to me and superficial. As for the story, it was predictable and annoying. I am quite disappointed by this book. I am a huge fan, but I definitely don't think this is one of her better efforts.

  • A very good story, well researched
    From Amazon

    I really liked this book and so did my 24 year daughter. We eagerly await each book by this author, they are always thought provoking. This is a story about a near adult child with asbergers autism. It tells of how difficult it is to grow up being different, and how easily people can be mis-understood. It is a story of a mother's love and the reaction of a sibling when one child's needs take over the family routine and lifestyle. I would recomeend this book to everyone.

  • A Great Reading Experience
    From Amazon

    Jodi Picoult continues to gain recognition as a bestselling novelist with notoriety brought by both made-for-television versions of her work and a recent big screen adaptation of her novel, MY SISTER'S KEEPER. With the release of her latest book, HOUSE RULES, she may have created her best and most controversial work to date. Eighteen-year-old Jacob Hunt is a highly-functioning teenage boy who suffers from a form of autism known as Asperger's Syndrome. He realizes he is in good company as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Albert Einstein, Andy Warhol, Jane Austen and Thomas Jefferson all had Asperger's. He is far more functional than the Dustin Hoffman character in Rain Man, but he does share some similar traits: sticking to a regular schedule and not veering from it, obsession with colors and organization, and difficulty in maintaining a relationship. Jacob's mother, Emma, writes a syndicated advice column --- "Ask Auntie Em" --- and his younger brother, Theo, attends the same high school. Picoult devotes each chapter to one of the various characters who are featured in HOUSE RULES. Early in the book, Theo recognizes that he is supposed to make exceptions for Jacob (it's one of the unwritten house rules). Similar to John Irving's CIDER HOUSE RULES, the Hunt family actually has their own set of rules all based on respecting Jacob's special needs and keeping things as normal as they possibly can. Jacob and Theo's father, Henry, ran off when they were very young, and he has since remarried and raised a new family in California --- far from the Vermont home Emma has struggled to keep together. Jacob has a genius IQ and possesses knowledge of random facts and a wealth of movie quotations. Another one of his obsessions is forensic science, brought about by his daily viewing of the television show "Crime Busters." He keeps a police scanner in his room and often invades crime scenes to share his own hypothesis of the situation. When he shows up at a late-night scene in which the police are examining a frozen corpse, he is captured and put in front of the lead detective, Rich Matson. Jacob insists he is a civilian with a better understanding of forensic science than the local police. Emma and Theo continue to struggle daily with Jacob and his quirks. Theo wonders why being different gets you a free pass in life. He finds a way to rebel from the lack of attention he gets at home by following his own obsession --- breaking into local homes and occasionally walking off with items like iPods and video games. As a senior in high school, Jacob must interact more than ever before. As a result, Emma hires a college student named Jess to become his social skills coach and she actually has some minor success. People with Asperger's have trouble with normal interactions, and their conversations are often one-sided. They are unable to read social cues or body language and often cannot identify the feelings of those around them. Therefore, Jess knows she has her hands full with Jacob. She takes him out for a night of social interaction at a local pizzeria. Unfortunately, for Jacob, Jess brings along her boyfriend, Mark, who Jacob cannot stand. Jacob also suspects that Mark may be abusing Jess physically, so he is on his guard around him. An argument erupts as Mark becomes unnecessarily jealous of the time Jess spends with Jacob, and the two of them leave the pizzeria in a huff --- abandoning Jacob in the process. It is much to Jacob's surprise when news comes out that Jess has gone missing and Mark is the lead suspect. In shocking fashion, the police discover Jess's body positioned in an odd manner in the snow behind the house she was staying in. Mark is initially brought in and questioned, but the focus soon shifts to Jacob --- as Jess's body was found wrapped in a quilt from Jacob's closet. Mark is released, and Jacob is taken in by Detective Matson and eventually charged with the murder of his tutor. Emma, not knowing what to do, hires a local defense attorney named Oliver Bond. Oliver has very little experience but recognizes the magnitude of the case and sees an opportunity to make a name for himself. The remainder of the novel focuses on the trial and all the challenges presented by putting a teen with Asperger's in an unfamiliar and potentially hostile environment. Jacob admits to setting up the "crime scene" that involved Jess's body and is forthcoming about how he did this. However, he is never asked directly by his attorney or even his mother if he was actually responsible for her death. Emma is in a state of denial, and Oliver has his work cut out not only in defending a client against overwhelming evidence but also preparing the client's mother for the prospect that her son may spend the rest of his life in a prison or home for the criminally insane. There are some twists and turns as HOUSE RULES tells the story of this landmark criminal case. Shrewd fans of mystery novels should be able to figure things out before the stunning climax --- but this in no way takes away from the reading experience. Novelist and American icon Stephen King has been quoted as stating: "You men out there who think Ms. Picoult is a chick thing need to get with the program. Her books are an everyone thing..." I couldn't agree more and hope that HOUSE RULES brings her an even wider audience.

  • House Rules
    From Amazon

    I really enjoyed this story. I think it takes you deep into the life of autism. Without a doubt its one of her best books.

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