Defending Jacob by William Landay
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
In this legal thriller, assistant district attorney Andy Barber's comfortable and respectable life comes to a screeching halt when his fourteen-year-old son, Jacob, is charged with murdering one of his classmates. Andy is suspended from his position so he cannot unduly influence or garner information from the people he has worked with for years, cutting him off from the natural resources he needs to defend his son from the charges. Instead, he finds himself on the other side of the courtroom watching his greatest professional rival do what he can to put Jacob away for good. As part of the defense, Andy is forced to confront the dirty secrets of his own past, which he has never revealed to his co-workers, his son, or even his wife.
I normally don't read novels this length (421-page Advance Reader's Edition) unless I already know the author or the story itself grabs and holds my interest. Defending Jacob falls into the latter category. The description I gave above could easily be the trailer of a Lifetime drama, but this novel rises above a maudlin TV drama for several reasons. The disintegration of family trust is not a surprise, nor is it a shock to the reader when friends, neighbors, and co-workers turn against the family. What the reader doesn't get, though, is a reassurance that Jacob is innocent. Too many secrets aspects of the teen's life are revealed during the investigation: we learn that Jacob has a dark side. Bad decisions made by both the boy and his father (who knows better, but cannot help himself) also make proving innocence -or guilt- very difficult.
We also learn that Andy comes from a long line of violent criminals in which he appears to be the (only?) exception. He has spent his entire adult life keeping his heritage a huge blank spot, even to himself. Naturally, his family background comes out during the investigation. When the trial outcome appears darkest, the defense attorney tests Jacob for a specific genetic predisposition to violence that could mitigate his sentence. Andy is forced to visit his own father, Bloody Bill Barber, in prison to beg a DNA sample for corroboration. The relationship they begin to develop isn't pleasant, but it is interesting.
The ending has more than one twist. There is a certain point at which the reader may feel cheated, but stay tuned: the other shoe just hasn't dropped yet. Throughout the book, we read testimony that Andy is giving at a trial. It isn't until the end that we discover whose trial it is.
A great amount of emotional focus revolves around the question of whether the Barber men are born killers or not. My problem with the genetic condition Landay employs (a real one) is that the trait is sex-linked to the X chromosome - the one chromosome men do not pass down to their sons. The novel specifically states that the allele is located on the X chromosome, which immediately jarred me out of the plotline and onto Google. Most people who read this sort of novel have taken enough biology to say "Couldn't Jacob only get that gene from his mother? Why aren't they testing her family, too?" Since my copy of the novel is an ARC, I am hoping some editor has already spotted and solved this problem.
Overall, Defending Jacob is an engrossing read. It is well-written, outside of the genetics issue. Andy's willful belief in his son's innocence and the desperate acts he commits to shield his son drive this story, and kept me turning pages till I reached its open-ended conclusion.
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