When I read this book a few years ago, I had already gotten through four other Jodi Picoult – My Sister’s Keeper, The Tenth Circle, Vanishing Acts, and The Plain Truth (it was just a phase, okay). I feel that we had a good relationship. Sure, after the first exciting fling things got predictable pretty fast (“gee, I wonder if this one will have dramatic courtroom scenes?”), but Jodi was still able to keep me hooked. Then I read Nineteen Minutes, and decided it was time to call it off.
The story, like all of Picoult’s book, clumsily tackles a hot-button social issue – in this case, a school shooting. Using multiple characters’ perspectives, she tells the story of how one bullied student was tormented so thoroughly throughout his school years that he brought a gun to school one day and started massacring his fellow students. (the title refers to how much time it took him to perform his killing spree) The kid is arrested after the shooting, and his trial follows.
One big problem with the book is that I was expected to think – or at least consider – that a kid being bullied for years is an excuse to shoot up a high school, killing not only the popular jerks but also several innocent bystanders. No. I’m sorry, no.
It didn’t help that the bullied kid in question was utterly unlikable, as was his oh-so-tragic love interest, a girl whom we are supposed to pity because she refuses to break up with her abusive football player boyfriend (because of course he plays football, and probably studies karate at Kobra Kai too) because if she doesn’t date him she won’t be popular anymore, social pressure etc. Every high school-related convention and cliche is used and run into the goddamned ground here, and it is unpleasant.
But here’s the real reason the book gets one star, and I don’t consider this a spoiler because I think people deserve to be warned about this: the morbid fascination of school shootings stems from, I believe, the mystery of why any kid would go to such an extreme. Since most of the people who commit this crime end up killing themselves, we never really know how or if they justified their actions.
With this in mind, pretend you’re a writer working on a book about a school shooting, where the killer narrates some of the story. Wouldn’t it be a good idea to have a chapter where the reader gets to be inside the killer’s head during the actual shooting, so they could understand his thought process and logic?
If you answered “well, duh,” then congratulations, you are not Jodi Picoult. Throughout the entire book, we never, ever get to see the shooting through the bullied kid’s eyes. Why did he shoot the people who never harmed him, including a teacher who was kind to him and some random girl just walking in his line of fire? Did he feel any remorse during the shooting? What was he thinking? Why did he stop in the middle of his spree to sit down in the cafeteria and eat a bowl of cereal? We never find out, and this infuriated me so much Picoult might as well have ended the book with, “I’m Jodi Picoult and I get paid thousands of dollars to print out crap they sell in airport bookstores! I do what I want, so fuck you!”
Verdict: one out of five stars