Book Review: Nineteen Minutes

by terry mathews - news-telegram arts editor

Nineteen Minutes

By Jodi Picoult

Washington Square Press.
Paperback, $10.20, 480 pp.

June 24, 2008 - Jodi Picoult's novel about a New England high school shooting isn't the easiest story to follow. And, it's not because of the tragic plot.

In order to establish the characters' back stories, Picoult spends a lot of time jumping from past to present and from character to character in "Nineteen Minutes," her fictional retelling of one horrific morning and its aftermath.

I finally identified all the relationships and knew where each person fit in the plot about half way through.

That difficulty aside, I believe this book should be read by every teacher, parent and grandparent on the planet. I believe it should be required reading in the classroom, too, as the novel addresses the tragic effects of bullying and peer pressure. The book shines a light on the troubled lives of today's teenagers and their desperate struggle to fit in and to be cool and hip.

Peter Houghton has hated school since the first time he rode the bus in kindergarten. The bigger, more aggressive boys torment Peter by stealing his lunch box, smashing his glasses, tripping him and slamming him into his locker.

Josie Cormier will do anything to hang with the in-crowd. Although she and Peter were childhood friends, Josie abandons their relationship in favor of one with an egotistic, abusive - but popular - alpha-male named Matt.

After a particularly brutal incident in the school cafeteria, where Peter suffers the ultimate insult, he decides to get even.

He comes to school with two handguns, two rifles and plenty of ammunition, then opens fire. At the end of his rampage, 10 people are dead. Nineteen are wounded. Security cameras capture the event, including the moment when Peter sits down and eats a bowl of cereal after he shoots several students in the cafeteria.

The immediate terror ends when Patrick Ducharme, a member of the local police force, talks Peter into surrendering and takes his weapon.

"Everyone would remember Peter for 19 minutes of his life, but what about the other nine million?" asks Lacy, his mother.

The book covers more than just teen angst. The author follows the shattered lives of Peter's mother and father, who are still reeling from the loss of their favorite son Joey in a drunk driving accident about a year earlier.

Picoult also addresses the horror of Josie's mother, Judge Alex Cormier, as she heads to the school and finds that her daughter has survived, barely.

Josie suffers from the trauma and finds it difficult to put the pieces of her life back together.

Since the shootings take place near the beginning of the book, Picoult spends the rest of the story connecting the dots and working up to the book's "big twist" moment, although she telegraphed it so often I saw it coming from about about 100 pages out.

Despite its flaws, "Nineteen Minutes" is a stunning look into the dangerous world of today's young people. There are no easy answers to the issues they face, but we can't afford to stick our heads in the sand and say, "It won't happen here."

The more we know what these kids face on a daily basis, the better prepared we'll be to help them and perhaps avoid the tragic consequences like those that play out in "Nineteen Minutes."

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