828 of 866 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Page-turning legal thriller and family drama
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...
Published on December 24, 2011 by "switterbug" Betsey Va...
517 of 602 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Great Premise - Dragged Out
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...
Published on January 4, 2012 by Darcia Helle
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828 of 866 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Page-turning legal thriller and family drama,
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.
228 of 246 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An unsettling picture on an exquisite but disturbing canvas,
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
517 of 602 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Great Premise - Dragged Out,
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.
86 of 98 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Defending Jacob -- an absorbing thriller,
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.
100 of 117 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Whatever it takes,
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.
45 of 51 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars No ordinary courtroom thriller,
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.
119 of 145 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars The words I am looking for are "character development" and "mood",
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This review is from: Defending Jacob: A Novel (Kindle Edition)
First, I want to say that there were some things that did not really bother me about this book. I am a lawyer, but nitpicks having to do with legal procedure, etc, are not the reason I am giving this book a bad review. I also do not really care how long someone sits shiva or whatever. My problem with this book was that the characters were horribly underdeveloped, and a story like this must have strong characters in order to succeed.
The basic plot of this book is that an assistant D.A's 14 year-old son has been accused of murdering a classmate. That's it. No really, that is basically the entire plot. There are some things regarding the narrator's father, and a family history of violence, but the plot does not expand very much beyond that one line. It is so simple it could be a one hour Law and Order episode. Now I want to make something clear: I do not think a story has to have a complicated plot in order to be interesting. ANY story can be interesting. It is all in how the author chooses to tell it. But when a plot is really simple, then it is really important that you have characters you care about. The characters in this book are REALLY underdeveloped. The wife, Laurie, does not even seem like a real person, and neither does the son, Jacob. I will not give away any spoilers, but understanding WHO Laurie is, is really important. The narrator has been with this woman since she was 17, yet somehow they interact like they are virtual strangers, and I do not think that was INTENTIONAL on the author's part. About halfway through the book it occurred to me that I did not care about any of the characters at all. In fact the one character who was sort of interesting, was sitting in prison the entire book. There were also characters and scenes in the novel that were just sort of "there" and seemed to have almost nothing to do with the story.
I want to mention something else this book lacks that made it poor. I am talking about MOOD. A crime book, especially a murder mystery, really should have a certain mood to it. This story takes place in a town outside of Boston. Hey, guess what, I have never been to Boston or any towns near Boston. That means the author needs to take me there. What do these people eat? What kind of houses do they live in? Are they all wine drinkers, or are they beer drinkers? What does it mean to live there? A novel's setting is important. It is sort of one more character; when you understand it, you can understand the people in the story a little better. For example, Tana French does an excellent job of taking you to Dublin in all her novels. Why? Well, the fact that the story takes place in Ireland actually MATTERS in her stories, as well it should.
In summary, a total lack of caring about the characters in this novel made it very dull. To me, a great book leaves you will a certain sense of sadness when you finish it. You are sad because you do not want to part with the people in the story. This book never made me feel like any of the characters were actual people at all.
69 of 88 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars No defense for this novel,
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Defending Jacob has an interesting premise, namely "What would you do if your teenage son was accused of murder?" But the premise collapses into absurdity because of poor writing technique, repetition, lack of believability, and several outrageous factual errors (e.g. an assistant district attorney insists on questioning a suspect AFTER he has requested a lawyer; a shiva call is made to a family BEFORE the child is buried; a wife is married to a man for more than fourteen years and NEVER asks about his father, etc.)
In most novels there is at least one character you want to root for. Defending Jacob has no likeable characters, particularly Jacob who makes Tony Soprano's son look like Mr. Congeniality. The reader is left wondering why this kid was never in therapy.
Perhaps the biggest offense of the author, however, is using the first person point of view for the first 95% of the book and then "copping out" to an omniscient narrator point of view to reveal the twist at the end. If the author had tried, he surely could have maintained consistency in the point of view to avoid a disappointing distraction in the final pages. By the way, the "twist" was hardly worth the wait. Despite the "hype," Defending Jacob has no defense.
72 of 94 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars THIS is an editor's pick? Who the heck's editing?!,
This review is from: Defending Jacob: A Novel (Kindle Edition)
As you may have gathered by now, Defending Jacob is a story of a 14-year-old son of a DA that is accused of murdering the boy bullying him, told from the point of view of the aforementioned father. An incredibly thought-provoking premise, horrendously and amateurishly executed.
There are so many plot holes I can't even cover them all. NONE of the characters are likable, except perhaps characters that only get about three total pages worth of coverage. I suspect that's the only reason they remained likable. The "OMG HUGE PLOT TWIST!!!!" at the end? Predictable. Saw it coming. In fact, I saw the entire ending coming.
I'm irritated not only that I read the whole thing, which was incredibly predictable and poorly-written, but also because it could've gone in a completely. different. direction. And that would've been awesome. The murder itself wasn't really explained or, in spite of the endless pages devoted to the "evidence", gone over at all. Why not take that tack, fill in that angle a bit? And while I understand that being accused of murder would probably make you something of a pariah, we're expected to believe that not ONE single person stood by this family, when the mother was supposedly the pillar of grace and strength for the community? Right.
Quite frankly, this book was awful. If you rated it 5 Stars, you probably also found 50 Shades of Grey to be the BEST BOOK EV-AR. Take that as you will.
47 of 61 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Unbelievable characters and too many implausibilities,
I ordered DEFENDING JACOB based on the positive reviews here and comparisons to PRESUMED INNOCENT, which is one of my all-time favorite reads. Sadly, the first part of the novel dragged for me, and then, after the tension picked up, implausibilities and distortions marred the story.
The first part of this book never entirely drew me in, perhaps because the lawyer protagonist had a somewhat wordy style. I knew from blurbs about the book that his son was to be charged with a murder, but before that happened there was all this other stuff and several scenes that didn't interest me much. The format of the novel had a lot of repetition since incidents were related both in the grand jury transcript and by the narrator, sometimes more than one time.
The writing is nothing like Scott Turow's elegant prose. Too often the wording struck me as jarring, such as when characters "sloped" into rooms, "spidered" up walls, "bodied through bushes," "back-heeled doors," "introverted" feelings, and verbified additional nouns. They also "sniffed" or "growled" remarks, as in, "I buried my snout in his face and growled, `I know what you did.'" It was hard to stay involved in a story written like that.
The implausibilities and distortions that kept cropping up bothered me even more. I don't want to give plot points away, but the protagonist and his wife, the prosecutor, the defense psychologist, and the middle school students all acted in ways that were not believable to me. Many students, for example, knew the victim had been bullying a certain classmate but said nothing to the authorities about it when questioned after the murder and essentially stonewalled. I don't buy that, especially post-Columbine in an involved, upscale community like the one described. I've taught in districts like that, and many kids would immediately tell their parents; others would tell the cops. What possible reason would they have to cover up for an unpopular potential murderer in their midst?
The murder itself was also simply unbelievable to me as described. I'll say more about that and other issues in the comments section under the heading "spoiler" for those who would like to read more.
Despite all this, several of the family-togetherness scenes in this novel touched me, and there were sections where the suspense peaked and I didn't want to put the book down. There were also two plot twists at the end that I did not see coming, but they ended up almost angering me because they seemed contrived for horrific effect and based on seriously misrepresenting real and heart-breaking psychological conditions.
Tragedy that is true and character-driven can teach us about life and the human condition. This thriller with its implausibilities and distortions seemed more manipulative and false about subjects that I think should be treated with the greatest care. This author skillfully evoked some aspects of parental and family love, as well as of the law, but failed to believably render most of the psychological complexities and criminal acts. This made the book disturbing but not insightful and not one I'd recommend.
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Defending Jacob: A Novel by William Landay