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Ninteen Minutes Jodi Picoult

Jodi Picoult's fictional thriller involving a high school shooting

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An Emotional Read

  • Jul 14, 2009
Jodi Picoult is a wonderful author.  More often than not her stories are penned about tragic events befalling the everyday family.  Though, as I've come to learn over time, while Jodi Picoult is a fascinating writer--particularly because she tackles such intense issues and pits her main characters in such interesting situations--she often writes in a very formulaic way.  The books are good at least.  Many formulaic authors tend to eventually lose steam.  Perhaps Picoult just hasn't yet.  Her books are fun because they're thought provoking.  It doesn't separate from the fact that they're a lot alike.  And we'll talk about that shortly.  Nineteen Minutes is a good book that shares strong similarities to much of Picoult's other works.

Nineteen Minutes centers primarily on a boy named Peter Houghton and Sterling High.  It begins as a normal school day until something in Peter snaps and he ends up shooting up the school.  The spree only lasts for Nineteen Minutes.  Patrick Ducharme arrives at the scene just as Peter is finished.  As Peter is taken away in custody Patrick discovers a girl--Josie Cormier.  She's alive, even though her boyfriend did not survive and lies dead next to her.  She knows more about the shooting than anyone, but can't seem to remember anything.  Her mother, Judge Alex Cormier, has agreed to oversee the case, despite a possible conflict of interest.

Along the way Lewis and Lacy Houghton don't know what to make of their son's actions.  They manage to find a lawyer for him.  His name is Jordan Mcafee and he's Peter's only hope.  But with so much evidence stacked against him, how can Jordan defed him?  Especially when the town sees Peter as a monster,  and his parents as even bigger monsters for raising such a child.

Yet in spite of that, what Nineteen Minutes centers on the most is not the case itself or even how Jordan decides to defend Peter.  What Nineteen Minutes centers on the most is Peter as a character.  We learn about Peter from his days as a child to the day of the shooting itself.  The novel jumps around a lot.  First we are treated to the present day experience of the shooting.  The next chapter then goes back to Peter as a child.  After that the next chapter goes back to present day.  Then back to Peter's childhood.  The book continues in this sort of "Now" and "Then" fashion.  Jodi Picoult fans will recall that "The Pact" was written in a very similar fashion.  And as we dip into the past we also learn about Josie.  How she went from being a defender of Peter to getting in with a group of people who dislike Peter strongly and influence Josie.  For Peter, it's watching as he goes from being a sensitive kid who is constantly picked on and humiliated... to being a killer.  For Josie it's watching as she gets in with the "cool" kids

One of Picoult's best techniques is that she has a real knack for developing characters.  This is no different.  Most of her characters are very well developed.  If anything, it would be that Picoult relies a little heavily on stereotypes to develop her characters and even does this sort of "Us versus them".  At one point one of the "cool" kids says something like, "Without them there's no us."  We all know high school can be a pain in the ass.  As someone who most considered being in that "cool" group, I never empathized with any of the "cool" kids.  There was this sort of, "Oh he's a loser," kind of stuff.  But there was never this big divide between cool kids and losers.  We have to go a little further back than junior year in high school for that.  And while everyone has that yearing to fit in SOMEWHERE and most want to be cool, the stereotypes portrayed here can be laughable at times.  Not because they're there, but because Jodi Picoult doesn't know when to draw the line.  Peter is a loser and gets picked on a lot.  Yet we never really learn much about WHY the cool kids pick on him and make his life a living hell in the first place.  All we get is this, "Without people like Peter there are no such thing as cool kids."  That doesn't really suffice as much of an answer.  Even if it was just the cool kids disliking him for no reason that would've been better than actually having a character give us this, "Without them there's no us," line.  In short, Picoult sort of makes the divide between the "losers" and "cool kids" seem like it's a lot thicker than it actually is.  And not a single character we're introduced to is somewhere in the middle.  Every character we are introduced to falls in one category or the other.  And ALL the "loser" type kids we meet are ALL picked on.    In the world of Jodi Picoult, high school is more a living hell than you could ever imagine it to be.  As a result very few of the characters actually feel "real."  The characters that do become three dimensional are mostly the adults. 

Picoult usually has great characters, but here so many of them are "typed" that it just comes off as a little sloppy.  Perhaps even lazy.  Peter, despite being the main characters, suffers the most in this regard.  Despite Picoult stating in an interview in the back of the book that "Everyone fits the profile of a school shooter at least once," she relies heavily on stereotypes to do it here.  Peter Houghton is that bullied kid who just happens to play violent video games and has a family that owns guns, and gets pushed too far in humiliation.  I read a lot of books.  And yes, I've read a lot of books that deal with school shootings.  Picoult's Nineteen Minutes is definitely not the worst one.  In fact it's one of the best because it's a lot more thought provoking because it focuses a lot on not just the students involved, but the adults as well.  However one thing that's hard to shape is that almost every author has the same child.  It's like every author who ever decided to write about school shootings got together and decided they needed to for their own pact.  And in this pact all these authors said that any time they write a story about a school shooting they must always obey the following rules:

  • The kid MUST always be a troubled kid, who is picked on A LOT in school.  And at one moment there MUST be someone who calls the main shooter some homophobic slur.  If the words "homo", "fag" or "queer" don't show up in your book, then you haven't effectively written about a bully.  
  • It must ALWAYS be a male character and he MUST have daddy issues of some sort
  • There MUST be a scene involving genitalia.  It does not necessarily have to be the main character.  But without genitalia in some way the shooter will never be sent toppling over the edge.  If it is not genitalia it has to be something completely lurid and disgusting
  • If the shooter has a sibling then the sibling MUST be the better one of the two children
  • The shooter may not have more than one sibling, if this rule is broken then the child has to be the worst of all the children
  • Another important rule: The shooter MUST play violent video games.  If you don't obey this rule then you're not even trying.  And if you substitute it with violent movies, television or music then you're copping out.  The ONLY violent media that we're allowed to know the shooter engages in for entertainment is video games.  To fulfill this to the best of its abilities make sure that you never even bring up the possibility of movies or television at all.  If you don't single out video games then why did you even bother writing about school shootings?
  • The main character MUST be suicidal at all cost.

So while Picoult was very quick to mention that a school shooter never fits a specific profile, she decided it would be best to make Peter the walking stereotype of a school shooter by making him follow all the criteria above and then some.  In short, while Nineteen Minutes is thought provoking and says a lot about bullying.  It's almost preaching to the choir.  It's better than a whole mess of school shooting books to hit store shelves since Columbine, but can't separate itself from the stereotyping each and every character we meet in one way or another. What makes it interesting is that we actually get to see a trial take place.

The last thing which can be bothersome about Jodi Picoult is that she certainly isn't always big on climaxes and twist endings.  As is often expected of her books, there's a big twist at the end.  Unfortunately, Jodi Picoult is very good at making most of these "twists" come out of left field.  A lot of the time they feel forced and it's no different here.  The worst thing about reading a Jodi Picoult book is getting to the very end and realizing you slaved through 450 pages for a twist that usually is only there to ensure that you can't predict how the book will end.  This is well and good... but they don't always make sense.  And sometimes even when they do... they still feel force.  Nineteen Minutes falls into the "feels forced" category.  

So with all I've said, there's one big thing I didn't mention.  That is Picoult's formula which has become more and more apparent in her books.  Here is the break down of a Jodi Picoult novel:

  • Everything must appear to be normal for the family and the friends of the family
  • A traumatic incident must happen involving a child
  • The Family becomes split because of what the child has done
  • The mother must usually be the strong-willed character trying to be tough
  • The Dad must usually be the sensitive type and weaker of the two parents to comfort the child (though sometimes Picoult has been quick to make him unable to cope with whatever the tragedy is that has befallen the family and thus he instead hides his feeling)
  • Friends must also become split
  • The parents must always find out they don't know their child as well as they think they do
  • There must be a trial, and in this trial there must be a twist of some sort
  • The family is usually left split in some way

Now let me be honest and clear.  There's nothing wrong with Picoult writing a novel that follows the same arc over and over again.  She's a good writer, even if Nineteen Minutes isn't her best (for her best check out My Sister's Keeper or The Pact).  John Irving once said that a good writer would do best to write the same thing over and over.  I'm sure what John Irving met was that he should tackle the same themes over and over (because John Irving certainly tackles a lot of the same themes, but he always clearly has a different story).  Granted, Picoult does that.  But after reading so many of her books it's hard not to say that they're all the same at some point.  They just happen to deal with a different situation each time.  But most of her books include a lot of what happens in what I listed above.  So much so, that they're mostly predictable.  The solution to this is to pace yourself between Jodi Picoult books.  Reading them back to back can feel like you're reading the same book at times.

Nineteen Minutes follows all those things.  But one can't deny the strength of Picoult.  She has an excellent way with words.  Her extended metaphors can be a little annoying at times, but usually she keeps her stories going at a good pace.  She is also a master of trying on different voices.  This is something a lot of writers aren't very good at doing.  But Picoult does it majestically.

Also, in the back of her trade paperback editions, there's usually an interview and then a discussion guide to get a little deeper into the book.  For those who enjoy discussing books, this can help jumpstart any discussion about the book.  These are things that are fun to do.  Reading the interviews is also a treat because you're always able to learn about how Picoult came up with the idea for her books. 

But perhaps what really makes Picoult fun to read is that she is able to get you to start thinking about certain situations in different ways.  Despite relying on a lot of steretypes here, Picoult still makes sure to do so much more than focus on the shooting itself.  In spite of everything, Picoult performs quite a juggling act with all her characters.  Two of the characters even return from previous novels.  But Jodi manages to make sure that you know each character by the time the book ends.  And you'll have to in order to understand their actions.  Otherwise it might come off as a little weird.

With that said, Picoult rarely tackles simple issues.  Nineteen Minutes is often regarded as one of her best novels because of the topic it tackles.  This can be true... if you haven't read a whole lot of other books centered on the same topic.  If you have read other books of this variety, you probably won't be shocked to find out why the shooter did it.  In fact, you might even find the book to be very predictable.

Nevertheless... in spite of its problems (which come primarily from picking up so many Jodi Picoult books) it's still a good book to pass the time.  It's not Picoult's best work, but it is far from being her worst.

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More Nineteen Minutes reviews
review by . July 15, 2010
Jodi Picoult's Nineteen Minutes is a riveting tale that will keep you turning the pages until the very end. It tells the story of a school shooting in a small town in New Hampshire, focusing on some of the key players: Peter, the lifelong bullying victim-turned-murderer; his mother, Lacy; Josie, a student whose boyfriend is killed in the shooting; Josie's mother, also the judge initially assigned to Peter's trial; and Patrick, a local police officer investigating the shooting.   …
Quick Tip by . June 15, 2010
Another excellent book by Jodi Picoult.
Quick Tip by . June 15, 2010
This is a fascinating novel that came at a time when this is a very hot topic. I love the Picoult tends to publish books that are relevant to the tone of society. This novel is a real page turner and keeps the reader wondering what is going to happen next and what the real story truly is.
review by . February 17, 2010
Peter Houghton would hardly be considered a typical seventeen year old teenager. Because one morning, he loaded his backpack with four guns, went to school and killed nine students and a teacher. Jodi Picoult's enthralling best-selling novel "Nineteen Minutes", titled to portray the astonishingly brief period of time that Houghton took to complete his brutal spree, examines the genesis of that event and the people affected by it from every conceivable perspective - families, victims, survivors, …
About the reviewer
Sean A. Rhodes ()
Ranked #6
I'm a more analytical person. I believe that the purpose of the review is not for me to give you my opinion but for me to give you an analysis and help you decide if you want to get it. If you reading … more
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About this book



Books, Book, Cafe Libri, Teenage Angst, Mass Murder


Author: Jodi Picoult
Genre: Fiction
Publisher: Washington Square Press
Date Published: February 5, 2008

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"An Emotional Read"
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