Jodi Picoult has done it again. (Well, she did it again six years ago, but I only just realized it.) Nineteen Minutes is suspenseful, dramatic, heartbreaking and truly awesome — almost as good as The Pact. The following synopsis is told in chronological order, but please note this is not how the book is structured.
Lacy Houghton is a midwife and mother of two little boys in Sterling, New Hampshire. Lacy develops a close friendship with one of her patients, a defense attorney named Alex Cormier. Alex’s baby, Josie, inevitably becomes best friends with Lacy’s youngest, Peter. The very second Peter steps on the bus to go to his first day of kindergarten, he is picked on by the other boys in his class, and it’s Josie who comes to his defense. That is the way things work for the two friends throughout elementary and middle school, until the mothers have a feud over Lacy’s husband keeping guns in the house and Josie decides she’d rather be in the crowd picking on Peter than fighting them. Josie starts dating the most popular boy in school, the same boy who targets Peter the most, his actions only worsening through high school. Despite all this Peter retains a soft spot for his old friend, even professes his love to her via email. The email makes its way around the student body and the fallout from that leads Peter to finally, completely snap. One day he goes to school with his father’s guns in his backpack, shoots and kills nine students and one teacher, and injures countless others.
Peter goes on trial for his actions, of course, and his defense attorney strives to make it look like Peter was defending himself against bullying, much like women in abusive relationships defend themselves against their partners. It’s a good attempt, in my opinion, from a legal point of view, especially because the attorney brings up the school’s lack of bullying policy and the lack of teacher intervention upon witnessing what students did to Peter. But the attorney’s efforts fail due to one thing: Peter wanted to kill these people. The attack was premeditated, planned to the last second, and for that Peter ultimately ***SPOILER ALERT*** gets convicted to life in prison. (Actually, the real spoiler is when Josie goes up on the witness stand on behalf of Peter and confesses something I figured out almost instantly at the beginning of the book. But I won’t give that part away.)
When I said “The following synopsis is told in chronological order…”, I meant the book started with Peter shooting up the school and then filled in all the background information, each chapter alternating from present day to the years and months leading up to the shooting. If the story were told any other way, I do not think the reader would feel so much empathy for Peter, but this format gives a great deal of insight into what makes him (understandably) lose it. Please don’t misinterpret what I’m saying, though; Peter (or real people he was based on) should not have brought guns into a school and harmed students and teachers. On that I am clear. But the treatment of this boy by his classmates from day one of kindergarten — that’s 5 years old, people — is so devastatingly awful, so nauseating, it would drive anyone to a deeply depressed and tormented state of mind. It would not drive anyone to commit a crime, but it would certainly make you feel pretty hopeless. Again, Peter (and others in real life) was wrong, morally and legally. But were his classmates right?