Before you tackle this heart-wrenching and chilling book I suggest you inoculate yourself with a little pep talk that sounds something like this: “This is not the way most people live. Most people are good. Most kids turn out fine. Living is a gift to be cherished.” Etc. etc.
Based on the Columbine killings of 1999, Nineteen Minutes is the story of how and why seventeen year-old Peter Houghton killed ten of his classmates at Sterling High in New Hampshire. The story is told from the point of view of many characters including Peter, the judge who tries his case, and the judge’s daughter who used to be friends with Peter, and who is also the love interest of the chief bully Peter mows down. More POVs include the detective in charge of the case, Peter’s oblivious parents, and Peter’s defense attorney.
Picoult uses myriad POVs’ to craft a “legal argument” of sorts that mirrors the case Peter’s defense attorney is mounting on his behalf. In the beginning, Peter is a hateful sociopathic killer. By the end—through the careful depiction of his childhood, of how he was mistreated, and how little he was loved—Peter seems somehow less evil.
We learn that this child/man didn’t just wake up one morning and decide to go on a killing spree. His beastly classmates drove him to it. Not totally, of course; Peter had free will. He could have chosen another way to deal with his rage.
In a way, Picoult’s presentation of Peter is more chilling than if he had been your run of the mill sociopath. We are shown in compelling detail how a person’s soul can be destroyed. And how parents, who are supposed to guard their children from evil, can end up being their worst enemy.
Speaking of Peter’s mother, despite Picoult working hard to make Lacy Houghton likable I couldn’t help but hate the woman. The epitome of willful evasion, Lacy had no idea that her son was being tortured on the bus to school, in class, at soccer, and in the locker room. Peter had collected bagfulls of bomb-making materials in his closet. I mean come on! As a midwife, Lacy was too busy delivering other people’s children to worry about her own.
The drawing of Lacy’s character, more than her work on any of the other characters, illustrates Picoult’s genius. Lacy is presented as a sort of a victim, but not really. Through carefully placed details, Picoult shows just how complicit she really is. Lacy liked to be home alone in the house. (I do too sometimes. But only because I give my kids lots of attention and I do need a break here and there). Lacy left Peter with a babysitter all the time when he was little so that she could work, delivering other people’s babies. She married a hapless loser whose ridiculous life goal was to quantify happiness. I mean give me a break. And she didn’t know that her first son had bullied and taunted his brother, Peter, at school.
Lacy is complicit because she is so clueless. Two scenes illustrate this well. One is the flashback to the Houghton backyard in the winter. Lacy fed the deer even though she knew that this would make them dependent on her. She is so self-absorbed that she doesn’t stop to think how her “caring” actions will in fact contributing to the deer's demise.
The other scene that illustrates how clueless Lacy is, is when she’s shopping in Filene’s for Peter’s court clothes. Seeing all the clothes Lacy is buying for her son, the sales lady that waits on Lacy, assumes Lacy is sending her son off to college. The clerk comments on how hard it is to let your son go. Misreading the situation, Lacy assumes that the woman is saying that her son is in prison too. When the woman goes on about the emotional difficulty of seeing your son off to college, Lacy lies and says that Peter is going to Harvard.
Though I hated Lacy for much of the book, in the end my dislike for her was tinged with pity. Lacy Houghton is truly pathetic.
If you’re looking for a well-paced read, replete with psychological insight, well drawn characters, and a compelling situation, Nineteen Minutes is the book for you.