Review: Nineteen Minutes

Nineteen Minutes by Jodi Picoult

I used to read a lot of Jodi Picoult in high school—so much so that, when I graduated, the library donated a Jodi Picoult book to the library in my name. (To be fair, they did this for every senior in the book club.) But after a while, I just started getting tired of them. You see, Picoult has a formula or, at the very least, several elements that she constantly uses. The story is usually ripped from the headlines, one of the characters is a woman in a legal profession who is focused on her career (to the detriment of her love life and/or family life), there’s a court case, and, in families containing a main character and more than one child, one child is valued above the other. At some point, it feels less like a story that needed to be told and more like going through the motions. Still, I’d always wanted to read Nineteen Minutes—as it’s about a school shooting, it wasn’t available at my high school library. So I picked it up to clear out my head after A Clash of Kings.

Nineteen Minutes takes place in Sterling, New Hampshire, a small town where a school shooting has occurred. The perpetrator, Peter Houghton, is in police custody, a force that includes detective Patrick Ducharme. His parents, Lacy and Lewis, who have already lost one son, are devastated, wondering if it was something they did. Superior court judge Alex Cormier is expected to preside over the court proceedings, but she may be conflicted, as her daughter, Josie, was a student and a witness of the shooting. As Peter’s defense attorney, Jordan McAfee scrambles to put together a defense based on not what Peter did—as it’s heavily documented—and focuses on trying to explain why Peter did what he did; a heavy question in the mind of every parent and child in Sterling.

Picoult’s writing style is extremely readable. (I recall managing to whip through one of her novels in a day during high school.) It’s clear and direct, with little (though present) imagery. Her famously thorough research shows here, from the legal scenes to the motives to the in and outs of high school. The structure is solid, pivoting around the actual event and jumping before and after to show us the events leading up to and the aftermath of the shooting. The characters are well-rendered and distinctive. Technically, it’s quite a good novel, methodically checking off everything a novel needs to be, well, a proper novel. (Incidentally, this is the sort of thing that nets you three stars in my rating system—a novel doing its job properly.)

But it rings hollow. Already familiar with Picoult’s formula, I knew Cormier and Ducharme were going to get together as soon as humanly possible, there would be a hopeful ending, and well-rendered jail scenes. Familiar with popular culture, I knew the supposedly surprise twist as soon as Josie’s boyfriend revealed himself to be an despicable human being. While the characters do have organic motivations, the execution is off. For instance, one of the things that pushed Peter over the edge was that he, unlike other children bullied at Sterling High, did not have a supportive family that valued him. Good and logical enough, right? In one scene, Peter’s kindergarten teacher talks to Lacy about the bullying and is very realistic about the fact that Peter is going to have to either fit in or stand up to his bullies. Lacy turns out and tells Peter—a five-year-old child, mind you!—that if he doesn’t stand up to his bullies (who are older and larger than he is), he will be grounded and kept from seeing his only friend. What. Right thing to do, wrong way to do it. It’s this sort of thing that dogs the novel, a logical misstep that keeps you from identifying with and embracing these characters—while they’re well-rendered (I particularly Jordan McAfee, Peter’s delightful shark of a defense attorney), you get the feeling that, at their core, they’re automatons who could never surprise their writer and, thus, her readers. (I suppose this explains the lack of a Picoult fandom…)

I can see the appeal in this—it doesn’t demand much from you, which I sorely needed after A Clash of Kings, while never exactly talking down to you (though it likes to spell out subtle emotional moments). But it almost slides off your memory once you close it, easily forgotten. Franz Kafka once said, “I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us.” I like that image, doing battle with a text and, later, proudly displaying the wounds—the moments, the language, the power—that stay with you, scarred into your memory and popping up when you least expect it, now part of you forever. Picoult’s work could never land a hit, much less wield a sword.

Bottom line: While Jodi Picoult’s Nineteen Minutes is a good technical novel (extremely readable, well-researched, good characters, and a solid structure), it rings hollow—these aren’t characters who could ever surprise their writer, much less her audience. While there is something comforting about a novel not demanding too much from you, it slides off the brain as soon as you close the book. If you must.

I rented this book from the public library.

14 thoughts on “Review: Nineteen Minutes

  1. I’ve never read a Jodi Picoult novel. I know people who love her books, rave about them, and others who have no feelings about them either way even after reading several of her novels. For me, it’s the formulaic writing. I love getting sucked in by characters and their emotions if I can’t get attached, I don’t read.

  2. I’ve read a number of Picoult’s books and while they really do follow a formula (though I’ve hard arguments with people that they don’t), they’re a quick and easy read. Some of them deal with really heavy topics, but there’s great character development and the research level is amazing. Nineteen Minutes has been on my list for a while…just have to wait until I’m emotionally ready to read about the topic.

  3. It’s funny how much like “light reading” Picoult’s books feel to me, given how heavy the subject matter always is. She writes very fluidly and well, and I think she has the potential to write better books than she actually writes. Because you’re right, her books get formulaic after a while.

  4. I read Saving Faith and loved it, tried Plain Truth and nearly fell asleep. I kind of want to read Her Sister’s Keeper, since it’s her “big book,” but her other novels have been so formulaic that I don’t see the point. You’re right; she’s a solid writer who isn’t a great writer. Maybe she can be, but if she sticks to her formulas, I don’t see how.

      • I felt precisely the same way about Sister’s Keeper. That ending made me so mad! I liked this one a little better, only because I didn’t feel the “twist,” which I saw coming from early on, didn’t feel so much like cheating. It also made a decent book club book because it raised a lot of issues to talk about. It seems to me that Picoult’s books are more about issues than about people. I generally prefer books about people.

  5. I’ve only read My Sister’s Keeper. I did get through it fast and I wouldn’t say it was a waste of my time, but I haven’t felt much call for reading another book by Picoult. The thing that particularly bugs me about My Sister’s Keeper is that almost every single character had an ‘issue’. This one is the secret arsonist, this one has a secret disability, etc. That issue defined them more than their personality or worldview, and that annoyed me.

  6. I found that I connected with Peter as a character an awful lot. All my main schooling life I have been bullied and when it has gone back to my parents they have told me to stand up for myself and retaliate back! Personally I think it is wrong and could not bring myself to do so. I, myself have suffered with depression because of bullying, and now that I am more excepted for who I am, I feel like Josie. If you do not understand the consequences to bullying, I can see where you are coming from with the “easy” plot. I am doing a Literature Case Study on Jodi Picoult’s novels, Nineteen Minutes and Tenth Circle to look at the physcological effects of alienation between the two. Her research she uses is absolutly amazing and if you have gone into it as much as I have you can see how accurate these plots and subplots are to real life. The Columbine High School Shooting and Heath High School Shooting were both used to write Nineteen Minutes. All three killers in these cases all suffered from bullying, one created violent video games (alegadly in the plan of the school, which later turned out not to be true), two killed themselves and one got stopped but wanted to and another example is that in one of the cases one teacher was shot and killed. Surely this gives the novel an edge of reality you would not find anywhere else? Perhaps I am wrong I am open to a debate lol.

    • I do not say that the plot is easy, merely that Picoult’s writing style is very easy to read. It’s not difficult to finish up one of her books in a single day. The plot could be considered “easy” in that it is ripped from the headlines and the motivations of the real high school shooters are similar to the motivations of real high school shooters, but that’s not something I saw in the review.

      But a realistic plot is not the only thing that gives a novel “an edge of reality”. For me, above anything else, it’s organic motivation, and that’s what I’m missing here. I am told these characters are doing A because of B, but I do not believe it, because they feel like automatons instead of human beings coming to their own conclusions.

      As a queer French kid growing up in the South, I think I have a fair grasp on the consequences of bullying. However, everyone’s situation is different and I wouldn’t dare speak to yours.

      • I understand what you’re saying now 🙂 I think I miss read what you were saying to be fair. For that I do apologise. However the idea of characters are doing A because of B does make sense. But the reasoning behind it is correct as that is how cause and effect work. I do agree, I have read both the novels I spoke about before, in two days. And there is nothing wrong with being queer 🙂 I am lol.

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