Nineteen Minutes by Jodi Picoult: B+

From the back cover:
New York Times best-selling author Jodi Picoult—known for tackling today’s hot-button issues—delivers the riveting tale of one small town’s entanglement with high school violence.

New superior court judge Alex Cormier is assigned to preside over the case of the alleged Sterling High School shooter. Lawyer Jordan McAffee represents Peter—the boy who, on the day of the shooting, was found in the corner of the gymnasium holding a gun to his head with a shaky hand. Detective Patrick DuCharme has one star witness, but her story keeps changing. And then there’s the biggest problem of all—the star witness happens to be Judge Cormier’s daughter.

Picoult, acclaimed for her penetrating exploration of the gray areas in modern society, asks difficult questions in Nineteen Minutes, which may be her most powerful and important novel yet.

Nineteen Minutes had its flaws, but ultimately, though I didn’t find it as emotionally affecting as was probably intended, it was an interesting read.

The structure of the story bounces around in time, establishing what life was like for Peter growing up (as well as filling in background for other characters) and waiting until the last possible moment (on the concluding day of his trial) to finally divulge what happened in the crucial moment when Josie Cormier and her boyfriend encountered him on the morning of his shooting spree. Probably this was supposed to be a big twist, but I had been suspecting something like that for a while. I’ve read some reviews where the ending is particularly criticized. I’m not sure whether they’re talking about this part (which I thought was okay) or the more cheesy final pages.

Peter is the best-defined character in the novel: Picoult does a good job at making him sympathetic and chilling simultaneously. She also shows that some of the victims weren’t little cherubs, though it was overkill after a point. I was annoyed when the trial proceedings were interrupted just to show, yet again, how much of an abusive jerk Josie’s boyfriend was. We got it already!

The other major characters didn’t benefit from as thorough characterization as Peter received, and I was sometimes at a loss to fully understand how certain developments had occurred. Part of the problem might be the time jumping—skipping a few months to encounter Josie and her mom having a better relationship without actually showing how they worked to achieve it, for example.

All in all, I did enjoy the book. Maybe it was a little sensational, but the approach to showing why a student might be driven to do something like that was thoughtful enough that I didn’t feel the only intent was to capitalize on interest in similar real-life tragedies. I’d read more by this author.

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