The Story: [from GoodReads:]
Sterling is an ordinary New Hampshire town where nothing ever happens–until the day its complacency is shattered by an act of violence. Josie Cormier, the daughter of the judge sitting on the case, should be the state’s best witness, but she can’t remember what happened before her very own eyes–or can she? As the trial progresses, fault lines between the high school and the adult community begin to show–destroying the closest of friendships and families.
My Take: Being a newbie to Picoult’s works, I would say that while this is by far not a terrible book, Nineteen Minutes does require a certain audience, among whom I’m probably not included. For starters, it is difficult to say that one liked a novel that is about a school shooting, its aftermath, and the events leading up to it. So from a reading standpoint, it was quite good; though from a story standpoint, it’s very raw.
Narrative-wise, this novel is told in third person from the perspectives of multiple characters, both adults and teens. Likewise, it relies upon flashbacks and flashforwards to show what led up to the shooting as well as how various characters cope with the aftermath. I’m usually not a fan of this narrative technique as it’s easy for the story to become too reliant on it, but I felt it was executed flawlessly here. Despite having a large cast, the novel’s various storylines were easy to follow and the flashbacks helped ground the events that were occurring in the novel’s present day moments. As a whole, we glimpse the world through the eyes of the school shooter, Peter, his parents, and other persons Peter had contact with by way of background and as a means to evoke sympathy, disgust, or both. I liked this evasive technique to a degree as the novel never tries to force the reader into a canned emotional response.
By way of example, Peter’s criminal actions are depicted as deplorable though he’s also given a backstory that causes his response to make a tiny degree of sense, remote as it is. Yet the novel never pulls the reader either way in terms of casting a final judgement, leaving it up to each individual to decide whether to feel anger, hatred, or sympathy and to decide whether or not Peter’s actions were ever truly justified. Myself, I was torn and perhaps that is the desired response: many of these characters have serious personal issues, which make them sympathetic, yet there is no way to justify some of their actions.
Peter is not the only character for whom the novel delivers this treatment. We’re left to concoct our own judgments of other less than pristine characters such as Judge Alex Cormier, who cares more about her career than her family; Josie, Alex’s daughter, whose only aim in life is to be popular; Lacy, Peter’s mother, who is frustratingly oblivious; and others. Never once does the story spoon-feed us as to how we’re supposed to feel about its characters. Instead, it presents their lives, open and raw, and we’re left to judge for ourselves. Did this character act rightly? Was that character truly in the wrong? Is this character deserving of more guilt or less guilt? Did that character’s sins of omission instigate this character’s sins of commission? And so on.
On one hand, I appreciated the fact that this novel avoids sermonizing and allows readers to make up their own minds, yet in the end there is no clear moral on display, for good or bad, due to the umbrella of moral ambiguity most of the characters huddle under. I was on the fence as far as this storytelling element was concerned, and I can certainly see the pros and cons to such an approach. In its defense, I think it’s a mistake to turn any story into a sermon; however, I also believe a story should make its moral positioning either hot or cold, not lukewarm, and this can be done without sermonizing.
By way of example, in Crime and Punishment, which is also about a series of killings, Dostoevsky makes it clear that certain characters’ actions are morally wrong and they pay the consequences in time. Yet this truth is communicated through the unraveling of events and various character interactions rather than having a character openly deliver a speech about moral behavior. Thus, the moral implications in Crime and Punishment are blatant rather than ambiguous. In contrast, Nineteen Minutes resides in a morally tepid zone, never openly condemning its characters, allowing readers to form their own opinions, yet never taking a definitive moral stance either.
Furthermore, though I had emotional responses to each of the characters, I had a hard time relating to any of them. This novel is populated by disengaged mothers, emotionally-unattached fathers, snooty teenagers, abusive beaus, bullied outcasts, and so on. But I just couldn’t relate with any of them on any level. Even though I was bullied in elementary school, it was only because I was a new student. It wasn’t because I was an emotionally withdrawn outcast who was content to remain an outcast, wallow in my angst, and wish the whole world dead. Are there persons who are severely bullied? Yes. Do schools do much to curb bullying? Honestly, no, and I sense the bully-victim dynamic is one that will perpetually favor the bully and castigate the victim as being the catalyst for the bully’s actions.
This novel does a good job portraying a similar dynamic, only in the end the victim becomes the one holding power over his tormentors. In effect, bullying is a power struggle involving a power holder (i.e. the bully) and the power-deprived (i.e. the victim). In this novel, the power-deprived Peter eventually becomes the power holder as he systematically takes the lives of those who once had power over him. Such a role reversal is never openly depicted as morally right though it’s never openly condemned as the novel strives to make Peter’s actions more understandable albeit not worthy of imitation
That being said, while I felt a myriad of emotional responses to the various characters here, I found myself emotionally distanced from them as well. None of the characters are particularly good or even admirable, though some make far fewer worse choices than others; and it’s this reason why I sense I couldn’t connect with any of them. By way of reference, I had similar issues with Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy, which this novel reminded me of in a few ways; so it must be the way I personally respond to morally ambiguous characters, especially in a cast where there are precious few true heroes.
Also, as expected, this novel is emotionally raw yet it seemed overly-extended as it takes on a plethora of issues (again, very much like Rowling’s Vacancy). Topics this novel openly explores include single parenthood, abandonment, bullying, parent-teen dilemmas, death, abortion, dating violence, peer pressure, drug abuse, and suicide. These are hefty topics, and the novel always handles them with care and respect, but sometimes it feels like a little too much is thrown into the mix and, at times, can seem borderline emotionally exploitative.
Granted, I think what Nineteen Minutes seeks to do is show how the stereotypical perfect little community is not so perfect after all. But it does seem very drawn out, especially in its midsection, and I confess I started skimming through most of the second act. I will add, though, that there is a bombshell near the end that I didn’t see coming and which thickens the plot (but I won’t discuss it as it qualifies as a spoiler). However, the story ends on a bittersweet note albeit I didn’t expect a happily-ever-after with a novel such as this.
While this wasn’t a book I would have picked up on my own (as it was a book club selection), I certainly didn’t regret reading it and I was invested in it enough to want to keep reading to see how all of the story threads wrapped up. But Nineteen Minutes is not my usual cup of tea and I would probably only recommend it to a select readership, namely established fans of Picoult or anyone who enjoys novels similar to The Casual Vacancy in terms of topics and tone. In the end, this was a very raw book that left me feeling emotionally drained while simultaneously emotionally distant.
Content: Content-wise, this is a better fit for older teens and adults as opposed to anyone younger.
Language – Profanity isn’t pervasive but it does run the gamut of PG to R-rated words, including the f-word.
Violence – Violence isn’t shied away from though it’s described in a clinical manner, such as when crime scenes are analyzed, rather than gorily for the sake of being visceral. Aside from the school shooting scene itself, which is revisited throughout the novel, other characters are bullied and even abused, both physically and mentally. Lastly, Peter starts on a slippery slope to violence, from exhibiting anti-social behavior to creating a video game that plays out the school shooting and features characters that resemble his classmates.
Sexual Content – Sex and related topics are discussed though not in great detail, and the most graphic occurrence is an actual sex scene between Josie and her boyfriend. Other moments depict teens discussing their sex lives and/or moments of arousal. One character is publicly humiliated when his privates are unwillingly exposed. Related issues that are discussed and/or shown include unwanted pregnancy, abortion, teen sex, and homosexuality (as there are a few gay characters and one character is mocked as being gay when he really isn’t). It is worth mentioning that a gay adult character tries to introduce an underage teen boy (who is straight) to the gay lifestyle by taking the boy to a gay bar and, at times, seems like he wants to come on to the teen but never openly does. While nothing sexual ever occurs between them, it is a bit disturbing to see an adult man take a less-than-innocent interest in an underage teen boy.
Thematic Content – As discussed above, there is thematic content that better serves an 18+ audience as opposed to anyone younger. Such topics include parent-child conflicts, teen sex, death, bullying, abuse, violence, abandonment, and related topics.
Overall, Nineteen Minutes makes for an interesting morality play that describes the same tragedy from the perspectives of different persons involved as well as relate events that initially set the stage. While the novel allows readers to draw their own conclusions, the story is a little too morally ambiguous and rather heavy-handed in the hefty topics it tackles. Thus, much like The Casual Vacancy and similar books, this novel calls for a particular audience who deeply appreciates emotionally taxing stories and morally equivocal characters without the expectation of a clean-cut ending or too many uplifting moments.