“Defending Jacob”: An Addictive, Engrossing Read

Defending Jacob by William Landay tells the story of a fourteen-year-old boy named Jacob Barber who is accused of murdering a classmate. If you enjoy crime fiction or psychological drama this a high-quality and addictive yarn. This is also a story that is hard to discuss without any spoilers so first I’ll provide my general impressions of the book and then I’ll go into spoiler territory.

One of the issues I thought the book dealt with very well is the question of how to best love a child who is disturbed. Jacob is the disturbed child. Whether or not he is an actual murderer is left a little ambiguous to allow the reader to come to their own conclusion. Frankly, I thought the answer was pretty clear but was surprised when reading reviews some were not convinced of Jacob’s guilt or innocence.

Whether guilty or innocent, Jacob does display some concerning behavior. The way both parents absorb this information is very different and has disasterious consequences for their family life. This aspect of the story felt particularly compelling to me. Many children grapple with mental health issues and it can be difficult for some parents to not only come to terms with the issue but to also to agree on the best approach to support the child. In Jacob’s case, his father Andy goes the route of blind loyalty while his mother Laurie tries to tackle the issue more pragmatically while seeking the help of qualified professionals. Laurie’s success in doing so was limited due to having a resentful teen on her hands and a husband that offered very little in the way of support. The Barber’s inability to tackle Jacob’s behavioral issues as a united front puts significant stress on an otherwise very happy marriage.

The way each parent comes to their own conclusion about Jacob is based on their respective family histories and is absolutely understandable from a character motivation standpoint. The book delves into Andy’s history more extensively and without giving too much away there could be a genetic component to Jacob’s issues. Capacity to do violence is not something I think is genetic but mental illness certainly can run in families. Andy feels great responsibility for Jacob’s struggles on the mental health front and I suspect is the reason behind his unwavering faith in his son.

Jacob himself felt very obtuse. I couldn’t get a strong feel for what was going on in his head or what actually motivated him. That was probably intentional on the author’s part, perhaps highlighting the idea that it is not always possible to see our loved ones for who they truly are.

My one minor criticism of this book is with the courtroom scenes. Honestly, I found them to be a bore. This is more of a personal preference than a critique of the book, however. Courtroom dramas are definitely not my cup of tea. Thankfully, there weren’t that many and most were relatively brief.

But is Jacob guilty??? Here’s where we enter spoiler territory. If you don’t want to know my opinion and if you are going to read the book I suggest you stop here. Defending Jacob is a great read. If you’re interested in the book definitely read it and let’s discuss afterward.

You have been warned…

One more time…

OK so did Jacob do it? Uh, yes, of course he did! I really couldn’t believe some reviewers weren’t entirely sure. Why do I think so? Well, two teenagers in Jacob’s immediate sphere turned up dead, Jacob’s best friend believed he killed a lost dog (practicing perhaps?) and he likely tortured a cat the night before he was due in court. I guess the stress of being an accused murderer was finally getting to him. But even if all of this evidence was circumstantial – and Jacob’s defense attorney argued effectively that it was – there was one other thing that really clinched it for me.

The murdered boy, Ben Rifkin, was well known around school to be bullying Jacob. Ben was also a large, athletic kid. One of the confounding issues in the court case was that despite being stabbed three times in the chest Ben had no defensive wounds. Why wouldn’t a strong, athletic kid fight back when being attacked? Simple, he didn’t see the murder for what it was as it was happening. The attack could have happened so fast that Ben didn’t realize what Jacob was doing until it was too late.

Am I sure that this is what happened? No, but to me it was the only explanation that even remotely made sense. Oh, and I read that the book is being made into a tv adaptation with Chris Evans playing Jacob’s father. He’s the perfect choice to play Andy Barber – handsome, likable, well-intentioned, and tragically oblivious.

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