There are five rules in Jodi Picoult’s latest page-turner, House Rules, but two are repeated the most. Rule #2 is “Tell the truth,” and Rule #5 is “Take care of your brother: he’s the only one you’ve got.” Rules themselves are an important theme in the novel, because it centers on an 18-year-old boy, Jacob, who has Asperger’s syndrome. Picoult’s well-researched descriptions of Asperger’s reveal that strictly adhering to rules is a hallmark trait of people with this disorder.
Jacob was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome when he was a toddler. Picoult smoothly addresses the debate over whether vaccinations can cause such a disorder, bringing up the fact that the boy seemed normal until he got his shots. Now, at 18, Jacob has a higher-than-average IQ, a photographic memory used mainly for quoting movies, an obsession with forensic science, and a deep desire to connect with other human beings—which he is unfortunately unable to do. Instead, Jacob struggles to read body language, takes the world literally, needs days to be color-coded (like “Brown Thursdays” when his outfit and the family meal have to be completely brown), is sensitive to light and noise, and throws tantrums when routines are disrupted. His only friend, and the girl he loves, is a graduate student named Jess who is tutoring him in social skills like making eye contact and not isolating people in conversations.
One day Jess goes missing, and the whole routine is thrown off. When she is found dead a few days later, Jacob quickly becomes the main suspect. No longer is this just a novel about a misunderstood disorder and a social outsider, but also a thrilling crime and law story that doesn’t rest until the last page. Picoult, for her part, successfully holds onto the reader by never fully explaining what happened until that last page. Picoult tries to get readers to pick up the evidence, analyze it, and solve the crime.
House Rules is a powerful, emotional experience from page one. The novel does not settle as simply a book about Asperger’s syndrome, love and family, a murder trial, or the failures of the justice system. Instead, it ties all these themes into one compelling package. Since Asperger’s is high on the autism spectrum—meaning people with Asperger’s are highly functional and may not appear to have any disorders—it is often misunderstood. Picoult beautifully describes the experience of having the disorder as well as being affected by someone with it, as she uses a first-person perspective that rotates among the main characters. (Each character also has their own font, which is visually unappealing at first but helps identify everyone while reading.)
What is shocking about the novel, too, is the way it highlights the inequalities of the criminal justice system for some people and not for others. It is compelling to watch Jacob thrown into jail—he begins to injure himself and withdraw from reality, the investigation assumes his inability to make eye contact and tendency to fidget means he feels guilty, and the prosecution lawyer thinks it is unfair to make special adjustments to the courtroom to help Jacob cope.
Although Picoult rewards her readers with a thoroughly satisfying and unexpected ending, the reader is still left with questions—not because of a failure to tie together loose ends, but because of a purposeful call to address the larger issues that go hand in hand with misunderstood mental disorders. House Rules is a daunting 500-page read for college students with little free time, but it is a beautifully written, thought-provoking, page-turner that will not leave you disappointed.