First Assistant District Attorney Andy Barber is the first in his office to hear about a murder in the woods outside their suburban Massachusetts town’s middle school. When he arrives at the scene, he learns that eighth grader Ben Rifkin has been stabbed to death. Andy leads the preliminary investigation, even though there is a potential conflict of interest: Ben was a classmate of his son, Jacob. Police interviews with classmates and Facebook comments on a memorial page suggest that Ben had been bullying Jacob and that Jacob was preparing to defend himself. Damning evidence quickly puts Jacob at the scene, police charge him with murder and Andy steps down from the case.
Jacob swears he’s innocent and Andy believes him. Readers, however, must form their own opinions about Jacob. The author makes it tough to decide because Jacob is hard to know. He’s a typical teenager, closed and sarcastic. And he has only a few friends in his circle, friends who now keep their distance.
As Jacob’s lawyer prepares for trial, Andy and his wife, Laurie face the impossible problem of seeing the evidence yet wanting to believe their son. During this time, Andy reveals shocking information about his own past that may point to a pattern of crimes. Their lawyer suggests genetic and psychological testing and he and Laurie worry that Jacob has received the “murder gene.” The disturbing results call their parenting skills and decisions into question: are they bad parents because they put Jacob in daycare as a baby? Were they wrong to think he had outgrown his toddler aggression? Hadn’t he?
On the last day of the trial, readers may think it will all be over when the jury returns with its verdict, but twists and turns lead to a surprising finish. In the end, Andy may never be sure of Jacob’s guilt or innocence. Readers may feel the same way.
Published in 2012, Defending Jacob explores themes of marriage, parenting, bullying and nature vs nurture. Lesser themes include politics in the district attorney’s office and the false feeling of security in an affluent suburban town. I enjoyed this story, despite it being a little dated. This is my second time reading it and my only negative comment would be that Jacob seemed older, not like a fourteen-year-old boy. The story has been modernized and is now a TV miniseries starring Chris Evans, Michelle Dockery and Jaeden Martell.
Defending Jacob is a good choice for a book club. I recommend it to readers who like mysteries and character studies.
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