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By Jodi Picoult
The ingredients swirling in Jodi Picoult's new novel will be familiar to anyone who has attended high school. Cliques, nerds, prima donnas, social climbers, bullies, victims and clueless but well-meaning parents.
In other words, purgatory.
In Nineteen Minutes, Picoult deftly layers and combines all the elements to relay the fictional tale of a shooting massacre at a high school. The before, the during and the after is all there, and it's not pretty.
Even though such shootings, most notably that of Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, are now part of the public psyche, Picoult manages to go beyond the cold, sterile statistics that are intoned today when retelling those events. Her book reminds us of the heartbreak and the loss of innocence. It's also breathtaking storytelling by a best-selling writer.
The setting of Nineteen Minutes is Sterling, New Hampshire, a wealthy, boring town that's stunned one day when social outcast Peter Houghton kills 10 people at his high school.
Legally, Peter's guilt is never really in doubt. As the tale unfolds, however, it's tough to tell where to put the blame. Peter didn't just occasionally deal with teasing. He faced relentless bullying by students considered kings and queens. He could not win, and, growing up in the shadow of a popular older brother, it had long seemed he never would.
Josie Cormier, Peter's one-time friend who managed to climb the popularity ladder and abandoned him, was one of the last to witness Peter's actions in the school before he was caught. She and her mother, the judge assigned the case, as well as Peter's mother, are major characters through the novel.
The story is not told in a linear way, which adds to its emotional drama. It flips back and forth in time, describing how friendships unraveled, love grew and anger boiled over. Josie's mom Alex and Peter's mom Lacy were once friends who had a falling out. Josie's popular boyfriend Matt is both a girl's dream and nightmare.
The lead detective, Patrick DuCharme, and the defense lawyer, Jordan McAfee, also play key roles. Both are characters from previous Picoult novels.
The story climaxes in a riveting courtroom scene, but it's really the smaller moments that add to its vibrance, moments such as how Josie feels when Matt pushes her for sex, or how Lacy handles her visits to Peter in detention.
The book has already stirred controversy in Hanover, New Hampshire, where Picoult now lives and where high-school officials pulled it from a reading list over concerns that Hanover and its high school were too similar to the fictional settings in the book. (Hanover High School had been given advance copies of the novel.) Picoult, who researched Columbine and other school shootings, has said any similarities were coincidental.
In some ways, unfortunately, any high school can catch a glimmer of itself in the book.
At a time when a slew of teen movies make light of social ostracism and social climbing in schools, Picoult's novel is a reminder that too large a dose of anything can be poisonous. It also makes you want to grab every kid who feels like an outcast and say, "I promise, this, too, shall pass."