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the daily review, thu., mar. 18

Jodi Picoult

New Hampshire writer Jodi Picoult published her first novel in 1992. Since then, she has written just about a book a year, and also squeezed out four issues of DC Comic's Wonder Woman. Three novels have become television movies, one a feature film starring Cameron Diaz and Abigail Breslin. All her stories depict themes of familial love, loyalty and betrayal, romantic love and justice. House Rules, her 17th novel, is no exception and fits nicely into her body of work.

Jacob Hunt is an 18-year-old Asperger's child who only wants to fit in. His mother, Emma, has done everything in her power to make him feel as "neurotypical" as possible, including enrolling him in regular schools rather than those for special-needs kids. She calls his requirement for order and routine, his inability to look people in the eye, his outbursts, his lack of empathy and his fixation on topics such as forensic science "quirks," and caters to his needs to the exclusion of his younger brother, Theo.

With no father present in the house - he left the family when he couldn't handle Jacob's condition - Theo begins spying on happy families in the neighbourhood, each time becoming more brazen, until he finds himself breaking into houses and stealing iPods, CDs, Wii games: all the fun items his mom can't afford to buy him.

Meanwhile, Jacob is enjoying the time he gets to spend with his tutor, Jess, whom he believes understands him better than anyone and is his only real friend. Their sessions concentrate on teaching him how to interact socially - something his Asperger's doesn't allow him to do very easily. But lately, Jess's time has been too divided by the attention of her new boyfriend. Jacob suspects he isn't treating her right, but above all else, her attitude toward Jacob has changed. They argue, and when she turns up missing and then dead a few days later, young Jacob is taken into custody.

The story, basically about how one type of justice applies to the "neurotypical" and another to a person with a disability, is told through multiple narrators, which serve as chapter headings; Emma, Jacob, Theo, Rich, the detective, and Oliver, the lawyer. This allows Picoult to give us Jacob's point of view, and the voice of Asberger's: highly intelligent and deductive, yet wholly lacking in the kind of feeling the other characters exhibit.

Included in the mother's story is the dialectic of autism, and the argument about whether infant immunization shots are the cause. Theo's tells the tale of the left-out kid, and the reverse responsibility of always having to look after his big brother. Through the twenty-something lawyer, we get the conflict between succeeding on his first real case, while slowly falling in love with his client's forty-something mother. Finally, with Rich, the detective, we get all the police procedural clichés.

There's a twist at the end and lots of saccharine, predictable moments in between.

This book is a hefty 532 pages, though it could have been told in half the space, in fewer voices. In fact, it could have gone straight to screenplay, since it has the distinct feel of being written for that purpose. Picoult's legions of fans will love it, and some bright up-and-comer will play Jacob in the film, an aged-out actress will be cast as the mom and one of the newest Hollywood hotties will play the lawyer. That's what happens when an author becomes a brand.

Carla Maria Lucchetta is a Toronto writer and broadcaster.