I’d never heard of Jodi Picoult before, but I decided to pick up her novel Nineteen Minutes after seeing it on Amazon.com’s Editor’s Picks of 2007 list. The subject matter seemed interesting, and with an average star rating of 4.5 after 448 customer reviews on the site, I figured this would be a pretty safe choice in terms of an interesting read.
What I soon discovered, however, is that Picoult is extremely long-winded, and that her writing is quite uneven. The novel was interesting at times, but positively dragged at others, making for a tiresome reading experience overall.
Plot summary (with possible spoilers): The quiet, peaceful town of Sterling New Hampshire is jolted awake one spring day when 17-year-old Peter Houghton goes on a Columbine-style shooting spree at the local high school. His rampage lasts 19 very long minutes, and leaves 10 dead and 18 wounded. Houghton is arrested at the scene by sheriff Patrick Ducharme.
While Peter sits in jail awaiting first his arraignment and then trial, the novel explores both the aftermath of his crime and the events leading up to that fateful day. So part of the action is told in flashbacks dating all the way back to before Peter was even born, when his mother Lacy, a midwife, befriended single mother-to-be Alex Cormier. That friendship would in turn lead to Peter and Alex’s daughter Josie being friends during early childhood, though the two would eventually drift apart as Josie became one of the cool kids while Peter remained an outcast. And part of the action covers present-day actions as Alex tries to figure out a way to help Josie deal with the trauma of losing her boyfriend in the shooting and Lacy tries to figure out where she went wrong with Peter.
By the time the novel reaches its conclusion, the reader has a far better — though not perfect — understanding of what Peter’s state of mind was at the time of the shooting and why he chose to express his rage in that manner.
My Reaction: Nineteen Minutes was a very frustrating book in many ways. First of all, as I said above, the novel was just far too long and could have really benefited from some heavy editing. There were many parts that I simply skimmed, including everything about Lewis Houghton and his happiness theories, as well as the relationship stuff between Alex and Patrick. These subplots added nothing at all to the main story, and thus felt completely out of place. Why even include this kind of filler? Peter, Josie, and Lacy were the most interesting characters and had the most interesting problems, so Picoult could very easily have made a compelling novel about these three alone.
The biggest obstacle to my enjoyment of the book, however, was Picoult’s portrayal of Peter’s bullying at the hands of the cool kids. Would fifth graders repeatedly pick on kindergarten kids to the extent of destroying three lunch boxes? I mean, we’re talking about 11-year-olds going after five-year-olds here. That does NOT happen. And as soon as property is destroyed (especially when it happens over and over again), parents and teachers do get involved.
The high school bullying was only slightly more believable. Yes, I’ve seen bigger guys shoving smaller kids into lockers or pushing them around or whatever, but again, does it happen every single day? The verbal assaults, calling Peter faggot and homo, were spot-on, and those would definitely happen on a daily basis. But the physical stuff and the blatant destruction of personal property (Peter having his glasses deliberately smashed) would not fly for very long — not in a middle-class school district like the one portrayed in this novel.
I thought the Josie “twist” was utterly ridiculous. She was having issues with her physically and verbally abusive boyfriend, but instead of breaking up with him she decided that shooting him would be a better answer? Um, okay… that’s a little extreme there, isn’t it? I at least understood how someone like Peter would reach his boiling point after all those years of bullying, but Josie had tons of other options.
And finally, the ending left a lot to be desired. Calling Matt Royston and Courtney Ignatio’s killings manslaughter was an absolute joke. I mean, what did Courtney even do to Peter besides pass that one e-mail on to Drew, who then spammed the entire student body? Are there people out there who really believe that a simple action like that would reduce her cold-blooded murder to a manslaughter charge?? Wow.
On the whole, Nineteen Minutes was very difficult to get through. There were too many boring parts, it was far longer than it needed to be, and most of the plot points were simply too unrealistic, even for fiction. I don’t understand all the praise this book has received, nor do I get why it’s on Amazon’s Editor’s Picks list. It’s not at all worth the time!