This is as much a nuanced family drama, love story, and social inquisition as it is a murder/courtroom/legal thriller. If you can engage with the narrator, whose reliability or unreliability is a puzzle to piece together, you will be satisfied with this warm yet dark story of a community and family unhinged by a violent crime. The author is a former DA who is skilled at informing the reader about the law and procedure without telegraphing it. The narrative is even, polished, and intelligently observant of a community in shock, a family shattered.
I have relatives in Newton, Massachusetts, where this thriller takes place. It is an upscale community of educated professionals, whose children graduate from tony high schools and go on to Ivy League colleges. A fourteen-year-old boy stabbed to death in the park is incomprehensible to this insulated and well-heeled population. As prosperous as it is, there is also a provincial air to it, as like-minded families have always experienced security and safety here, and there is an expectation and history of benevolence. Violence is rare.
Jacob, the fourteen-year-old son of First District Attorney Andy Barber, is accused of murdering his classmate, Ben Rifkin. In Massachusetts, fourteen-year-olds charged with first-degree murder are tried as adults. Barber narrates the story with depth and dread, exposing some family secrets along the way, which could impact the case, and creates increasing internal trauma for his wife, Laurie. Their marriage has always been an ongoing love story; they met as freshmen in college and have loved each other unfailingly through the years. This event mires them in vulnerability and heavy exposure to the media, placing them under a public microscope. Do they really know their son? How much can parents really get inside the soul of their children? And, no matter how strong a marriage seems, a blow like this can undermine what is truly a fragile trust.
Landay has a talent for metaphor and imagery, rendered beautifully in the elegiac narrative. Woven through the story, in the old-school typed transcript of a court reporter, is yet another narrative, of Barber as a witness before the grand jury. How this fits into the rest of the story is gradually disclosed, and its presence is both suspenseful and revealing. Landay's dialogue is crisply cinematic but organic to the characters. His flair for teen-speak is spot-on.
Jacob, who is largely inscrutable, is developed through the eyes of other characters--and at a slight remove, which adds to the suspense. Is he a cipher? A typical teenager? The unknown X factor of Jacob draws out the detective spirit of the reader. The character that really blossoms on the pages is Andy, who reveals, through his agony, more than his contained self-assessment. He is a tormented man trying to protect his family, but his tenacity and inexorable faith in his son may have dire consequences.
I read this book in two long sittings, and savored every page. Critically, one could point to some of the technical flaws, but personally, I greedily devoured every passage and capitulated to the subtle narrative.
on February 8, 2012
I have just spent the entirety of one night and part of another reading a remarkable novel called DEFENDING JACOB. It's been a while since William Landay has graced the bookshelves with his presence, and his latest is quite different from his last effort, THE STRANGLER. While both books deal with family dynamics and loyalty, DEFENDING JACOB hits uncomfortably but unerringly close to home, as compelling a work as you are likely to pick up this year.
The basic premise of the book is deceptively simple. A 14-year-old boy named Jacob Barber, is accused of the murder of Ben Rifkin, one of his middle-school classmates. Jacob's father, Andy, has been an Assistant District Attorney for 22 years in the quiet Boston suburb that the family calls home. Andy does not consider his job a stepping stone to higher office; he is content to simply do the best job he can. So when Ben's body is first discovered, Andy takes charge of the initial investigation, working with the police in directing the gathering of evidence. But the investigation seems to proceed slowly, almost from the beginning, and when what evidence there is appears to point to Jacob as the killer, Andy is removed from the case and placed in the position of defending his son from the charges that, from his viewpoint, are most certainly false. In his mind, there can be no other conclusion.
Jacob's guilt or innocence is unknown throughout most of DEFENDING JACOB. But what is a certainty is that all is not right. Andy is a smart and experienced prosecutor who knows all too well how evidence can be wrongfully construed. Accordingly, he goes through Jacob's things, hiding this and destroying that and concealing the other. He does it with the chilling certitude that he is not protecting a murderer, but merely keeping his innocent son from a wrongful conviction. Innocent or guilty, there is something about Jacob that's wrong, and dreadfully so. What Andy construes as the quiet moodiness of adolescence in Jacob emerges as something that is much more unsettling and sinister. This is revealed through stories told by Jacob's friends, a number of whom take his involvement in Ben's murder as a cold, hard truth. At the same time, Andy harbors a secret about his past and ancestry that he has concealed from everyone and fears will be revealed, even as he agonizes over the possibility that his secret may well be the cause of Jacob's problems.
Andy's conflicts notwithstanding, it is Laurie Barber, Andy's wife and Jacob's mother, who slowly realizes the truth about her son during the investigation, arrest and trial. The difference between Andy and Laurie is that Andy cannot conceive of a world where his son committed murder; Laurie can, and it is the fact that she can believe such a thing could occur --- whether it did or not --- that causes her physical and mental deterioration. As the trial, verdict and aftermath unfold, the book ends not so much in a climax as it does in a series of explosive incidents and revelations, each greater than the next, until a rough justice of sorts is achieved. Or is it?
DEFENDING JACOB is one of those rare books that offers a riveting story in addition to raising profound questions and issues for which we do not have the knowledge or capability to answer yet. Is the human capacity for violence an inherited trait, or is it something we learn? How far can, and should, a parent go to protect a child? Is this judicial system an effective way to deal with criminals, or should alternative methods be considered? DEFENDING JACOB presents an unsettling picture on an exquisite but disturbing canvas, one that will haunt the reader long after the final sentences of the book are read.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub
For me, this book had highs and lows. I'll start with the good stuff. The plot tackles multiple issues, expertly woven together, and laid out for us to ponder. At the heart of the story is the controversial topic of the `murder gene' and whether the propensity for violence is in our DNA. We question whether our family history changes how people perceive us. And, along with the characters, we wonder how far we would go to protect our child.
Now for the not so good stuff. I did not always find the parents, the father in particular, believable. He stumbles upon a few red flags with his son's activities, yet he never once confronts his son about these things. His character is a bit too much of an ostrich, sticking his head in the sand and pretending all is well. The characters aren't well-developed and I didn't connect well with any of them.
The biggest disappointment for me is the pace of the story. It drags. We spend a lot of time in the narrator's head and his thoughts become repetitive. The trial begins about 2/3 through the book and the pace slows to a crawl. We read long snippets of the trial transcript. Everything is rehashed for us in trial format, but none of the information is new. The experience left me feeling disconnected and bored, rather than involved or on the edge of my seat in suspense. By the time I arrived at the twist at the end, which should have been stunning, I breathed a sigh of relief that it was over.
Note: This review is written to try and ensure that I leave no spoilers. This book's appeal lies in what the reader thinks will be the climax, only to be jolted by unexpected events beyond the courtroom drama.
I'd not read the two "crime novels" that William Landay has previously written (both received awards), but I'm drawn to the genre and most certainly will read them now. "Defending Jacob" draws you in and refuses to allow you to let go before you finish it. Would that I'd gotten it on Kindle so that I could have traveled easily with it and grabbed spare moments while waiting for the valet, in line at the coffee shop, etc.
Landay sets his novel in familiar territory, as he has worked in courtrooms in the Boston area. In a more or less typical suburb, Newton, the town is shocked by a tragedy of a 14 year old boy, Ben Rifkin, murdered before school starts in a local park that is the venue of joggers and kids walking to school. First Assistant DA Andy Barber takes the case for himself when the call comes in and goes directly to the crime scene.
But the book does not begin there. Instead, in the beginning, and throughout the novel, Landay starts the book with Barber (the "Witness") testifying before a grand jury to his nemesis, ADA Neal Logiudice. Throughtout the novel, as the grand jury testimony is layered into the story of Ben Rifkin's murder (standing out easily, as the author used significantly different form and type to separate it from the ongoing crime tale) the reader wonders whether the confrontation between
Barber and Logiudice is real or imagined, and, if so, in what context. To say that the reader cannot completely evaluate the grand jury testimony until the novel is finished, the story is told, and the reader is left to imagine, is to underplay the importance of the manner in which Landay conceived and sold this brilliant novel.
During the investigation and trial of the suspected murderer of Ben Rifkin, Andy's own son, 14 year old Jacob Barber is the prime suspect. The novel talks about Andy's removal from the case, the isolation of his family, the trial, and the aftermath. Much of the last few chapters roll over the reader like waves. But the genius of the nuanced, intricately written account is not about the trial scenes, but rather more about what happens to a family, to parental love and knowing, to the relationship between two parents who have raised a young man that they thought was one type of kid, and is shockingly revealed to potentially be someone they never really understood or knew.
You don't just read "Defending Jacob"... you contemplate it. You compare the book's twists and turns, the actions of Andy Barber and his wife Laurie, to your own appraisal of families and familial love of parents for their children. You confront the questions of the actions of a community, the isolation of adolescents, the impact of the internet and social media and the potential for inherited behavior all at once.
And you come away realizing that the characters you have watched throughout the story, though deeply flawed, may not be much different in their reactions to a tragedy than your own family would be. Stunning in its plotting, with a couple of over the top twists, "Defending Jacob" was the best fiction novel I read in 2011.
My hopes are that the reading public discovers it when it is published in late January and gives it the position on the best seller lists that it truly deserves.
These days, lawyer-and-courtroom books are a dime a dozen. Fortunately, Defending Jacob is no ordinary lawyer-and-courtroom book. It's smart, suspenseful, and a downright insightful look into an ordinary family that is on the road to implosion. Along the way, it has much to say about teenage angst, psychology, the latest genetic techniques, social media, family dynamics and more. Put another way, it's a work of literary fiction as well as a page-turning thriller.
Andy Barber is the first assistant district attorney with a attractive and empathetic wife, Laurie, and a typically moody teenage son, Jacob. He is also the holder of a secret: his father and grandfather were both arrested for violent murder. Suddenly, he is forced to face a parent's worst nightmare. His son's classmate is stabbed to death and gradually, the circumstantial evidence against his own son is overwhelming. This master of self-control and self-delusion is forced to consider whether the son he loves to distraction is capable of a heinous murder.
Is Jacob simply a teenager going through the usual throes of angst and alienation or is he the cold-blooded killer that the prosecutor portrays? How far will Andy go and what will he sacrifice to protect his beloved son? Some of the plot twists are a bit reminiscent of The Bad Seed, a 1954 novel by William March that was turned into an Academy-Award-nominated film with a "nature versus nurture" examination. But will the story end up the way that The Bad Seed did? Linday is smart enough to keep a kernel of doubt in his readers' minds.
This author excels in creating "teenspeak" dialogue. His teenagers - from Jacob himself to Derek Yoo, his best friend who turns to the prosecution, to Jacob's schoolmates - are so real they could step off the pages. This is some of the most believable teen dialogue I've ever seen. The only misstep is Landay's creation of Andy's father, who comes off as cartoonish, particularly in contrast to his other gripping characters.
While reading this, I could barely come up for air; the turns and twists, the family revelations, the emotional depth were all done with sophistication and aplomb. All the while, Linday educates the reader about the courtroom without crossing the line into authorial intrustion. I'm rating this 5-star, not in comparison to, say, War and Peace, but in comparison to others of its genre. Thanks to NetGalley for providing me with a copy for my Kindle; my review is my own opinion and not influenced in any way.
Theoretically, a person is innocent until proven guilty.
However, when a 14-year-old boy is accused of murdering a classmate, no matter what the final result, just being accused is as good as being proven guilty. The trial becomes a formality as the community around the family decides that Jacob is guilty before he even comes to trial and it is the parents' fault that he was capable of murdering another child.
Jacob's father, Andy, who tells the story, is an assistant district attorney. When Jacob is accused of murder, though, Andy is relieved of his duties and his whole life becomes defending his son, whom he believes is innocent. Painful secrets and foolish actions work to undermine the family's ability to deal with and to recover from this crisis. Learning more about each other does not necessarily draw a family closer or allow them to deal with a crisis better.
William Landay kept my attention throughout the book. I could hardly put it down, even knowing that the ending might not be as pleasant as I hoped. He keeps the emotional roller coaster going, as he details how Jacob's father does all he can to defend his son. In this novel, Landay has told a story that could apply to many fathers who, like Andy, would be willing to do whatever it takes to keep their children safe and free.
on January 9, 2014
It is one of those times where I am completely shocked by a novel's reviews and success. This book was a contrived and reductive mess. The pacing and structure were plotted like a made-for-tv-movie. It aspires to be a suspenseful outing combining the styles of Turow and Picoult but falls far short. To be fair, I did enjoy a few nuggets including Landay's commentary on teenagers and parenting including these bon mots:
"The interior of a teenager's mind is an endless war between Stupid and Clever."
"At some point as adults we cease to be our parents' children and we become our children's parents instead."
"I don't have a parenting style. I'm just making it up as I go."
He also makes a few good runs at commercialism including a solid jab at the "elaborate pretense" that is Whole Foods pretending it "was something other than a luxury store." Landay obviously loves storytelling as he injects references to it and building narratives throughout the book, "We are pattern-seeking, storytelling animals, and have been since we began drawing on cave walls."
It is just a shame that this is not a well-told tale. The family at the story's centre is never fleshed out and they do not endear or prompt any connection. Jacob could have been an incredible character. Instead he was impenetrable, conveniently masked behind a blanket diagnosis of narcissism. The wife was little more than a caricature and the father qualified for stupid villain-status.
Unlike the wildly popular but equally improbable, Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, this thriller never gelled or compelled. It was frustrating right up to and including the abrupt ending which I am not sure was a literary device or an expression of the author's own disappointment with the story. I remain bewildered at the praise it has received.
on July 27, 2012
This book had so much potential, but fell flat. I loved the premise of the story but only continued reading the story because I wanted to know if Jacob did this awful act or not. The characters were not fully developed; I didn't get to know Jacob. The trial ended as I suspected it would, but the events which happened afterwards were a HUGE disappointment. I do not know now so many people rated this book with such high praise. I was a little angry that I had wasted my time reading this book.
on February 8, 2013
There are already nearly 1,500 reviews for this book, but I'll post mine as well because I found this book to be many things, both good and not so good. In the first place, the premise is truly shocking and fascinating. A 14-year-old is accused of murder in the same jurisdiction as his district attorney father. Okay, let the fireworks fly! And they do. In no time, the father is put on leave and he promptly begins to defend his son at all cost, from hiring a great defense attorney to tracking down a suspect on his own. In the mean time, the boy's mother is more suspicious. More fireworks, this time the family drama kind as mother and father battle over what to believe vis a vis their son. Is he a good kid who makes some bad choices? Or, is he a bad kid who inherited a ruptured set of DNA from the father's family that is peppered with murderers? Enter cops, a psychiatrist, and even the grandfather still in prison for murder. These elements the author weaves together quite well as we venture down the path witnessing good and evil through the eyes of a man who proves to be an unreliable narrator. In fact, the book is told in the first person with plenty of courtroom transcripts. Because the reader is forced to bounce back and forth in the timeline without specific knowledge of when some testimony is given in different venues, the shocking ending is cleverly revealed. The trouble is, the reader spends a little too much time with the narrator, getting repetitive, dragging through a courtroom with retelling of various well-known parts of the story. The book could easily be 50 pages shorter without losing any impact. Still, I stuck with it with some satisfaction. In particular, the questions asked are the kind that don't always have answers. And if there are answers they are not the ones we like to face. There is good and evil in this world, and some of it may (or may not) be in the family.
on January 29, 2014
I was quite reluctant to download this book, seeing as the bad reviews specifically criticized things I can't tolerate when I read a book: plotholes, unexplained or illogical plot twists, characters you can't relate to, disappointing ending, etc. The only reason I did take the chance was because the price dropped dramatically, so I said WTH, I've read worse for more than $2.99 (e.g. Gillian Flynn). I'm glad I did, because I couldn't put it down once I started.
The main plot, to me, was not just about how these parents, mainly the father (an ADA) defended their son, Jacob, throughout the investigation and subsequent trial for the murder of a classmate. It really was about the changes it brought to these 3 people and how it affected each one (so very) differently.
The legalese was well written and clearly explained so you don't really feel overwhelmed by the procedural and technical part. The narration, which was from the dad's perspective, was flawless. Every thing he said or felt I could fully relate to. Why? I guess because it was well written, which made it completely credible. There were no twists added for the sake of "padding" the book, no farfetched explanations for events, or anything like that. I mean, at least it didn't seem that way to me.
The essence of the whole thing was the struggle of these people in their quest to cope with the circumstances life had thrown their way. I could fully relate to the parents throughout the entire book, even if at certain points I disagreed with their actions or words. IMHO, that is what made the book so enjoyable to me: the fact that you don't have to necessarily agree with the characters in order to be able to relate to them: the mother's guilt, the father's denial...it all made sense, as throughout the book I felt the same things that were being described.
Now, I won't say anything about the end, other than I found it suitable, albeit unexpected. The best part is, the reader is left wondering what the truth behind all these events really is. I know some people may be put off by this, so if you definitely need closure in a book, then you should steer clear. Otherwise, by all means give it a try.