- Defending Jacob by William Landay
- Hardcover: 432 pages
- Publisher: Random House / Delacorte Press (January 31, 2012)
- ISBN-13: 978-0385344227
Who and what is the book about (back-of-the-book blurb): Andy Barber, assistant DA, is respected in his community, tenacious in the courtroom, and happy at home with his wife, Laurie, and son, Jacob. But when a shocking crime shatters their New England town, Andy is blindsided by what happens next: His fourteen-year-old son is charged with the murder of a fellow student.
Every parental instinct Andy has rallies to protect his boy, but he faces a trial of his own — between loyalty and justice, between truth and allegation, between a past he’s tried to bury and a future he cannot conceive.
This is the consummate novel of an embattled family in crisis — a suspenseful, character-driven mystery that is also a spellbinding tale of guilt, betrayal, and the terrifying speed at which our lives can spin out of control.
Where and when does it take place: Andy Barber and his family live in Newton, Massachusetts, an affluent suburb of Boston. The murder of an eighth-grader – and much of the plot – occurs in this town; courtroom scenes are set in the Middlesex County Courthouse in Cambridge. Defending Jacob takes place over about a year, from the day of the murder in April 2007 to a Grand Jury scene in April 2008 (foreshadowed in Chapter 1).
What would I say to a friend who asked me about it: Now, you know I don’t read a lot of murder mysteries, but this isn’t your typical who-done-it. Landay strikes deep into the heart of parents (in this case, the victim and the accused are 8th grade boys; I’m the mother of an 8th grade boy!) by asking how far we’ll go to protect/defend our children. He also examines the struggle of nature vs. nurture, which is another topic near and dear to my heart (having taken 100% credit for the gentle quiet manner our older son, explaining that ‘mommy and me’ activities and near-constant classical music helped mold his sweet personality, only to be bested by his younger brother – also very sweet – but the epitome of “rough and tumble” despite being raised in the same environment).
The novel is told in the first person, in Andy Barber’s voice. Because there is this parental perspective of the narrator, there is also a bias. Andy is shocked as the town closes ranks against the accused, and friends, neighbors, and colleagues keep their distance. He and Laurie attempt to maintain some sense of normalcy – instituting sit-down family dinners and banning new reports from their television viewing.
There is a psychological mystery here, in addition to the murder mystery. These questions of parenting styles, nature vs. nurture, community response, and the mob mentality make Defending Jacob a good choice for a book group that is willing to push into some perhaps uncomfortable territory (personal can be uncomfortable, after all. But that discomfort/stretch can help us grow).
Oh, and of course I love the Newton setting – reading a novel which incorporates familiar place and local landmarks is always fun. The Newton demographic is very similar to the town where we live, and I found myself nodding along as Landay introduced personality types that struck close to home.
Why did I read it: At the NEIBA fall conference I asked our Random House rep “if I could read only one book of the next season, what would it be?” He placed Defending Jacob in my hands. Again, murder mysteries are not my standard fare, but that strong recommendation (coupled with a familiar setting), made for a winning pitch. To be fair, the rep told me I had to read more than one, and stacked three other books on my pile … I’m reading as fast as I can!
A few favorite passages: This goes to the heart of the community’s response, and it could be any town in America (p. 11):
What made the Rifkin murder so profane was that it involved one of the town’s children. It was a violation of Newton’s self-image. For a while a sign had stood in Newton Centre declaring the place “A Community of Families, a Family of Communities,” and you often heard it repeated that Newton was “a good place to raise kids.” Which indeed it was. It brimmed with test-prep centers and after-school tutors, karate dojos and Saturday soccer leagues. The town’s young parents especially prized this idea of Newton as a child’s paradise. Many of them had left the hip, sophisticated city to move here. They had accepted masses expenses, stultifying monotony, and the queasy disappointment of settling for a conventional life. To these ambivalent residents, the whole suburban project made sense only because it was “a good place to raise kids.” They had staked everything on it.
I liked this bit of insight, although I’d argue that I fall into the role of “youngest child” whenever our adult family gathers (p. 71):
At some point as adults we cease to be our parents’ children and we become our children’s parents instead.
And this, as Andy observes the changes the stress has wrought on Laurie (p. 147):
Once, my wife read so constantly that she would hold a book in her left hand while she brushed her teeth with the right; now she never picked up a book, she could not muster the concentrations or even the interest.
What else can I add: William Landay is the author of The Strangler and Mission Flats. He’s a former district attorney, living outside Boston. Defending Jacob made the IndieNext list for February 2012, as recommended by independent booksellers nationwide.