Monday, March 11, 2013

Defending Jacob

Ever since I read Gone Girl (and Gillian Flynn's other two books) last summer, I've been looking for a thriller I liked just as much. I was drawn to Defending Jacob because I thought it might have the same feel to it as Gone Girl had. Unfortunately for me, it did not. I slugged my way through though to the shocking but unsatisfying end.

In Defending Jacob, the small town of Newtown, MA (a name that has such a different connotation since the CT shooting in December), is rocked by the murder of 14 year old Ben Rifkin. Andy Barber is a local DA who takes charge of the case until evidence begins mounting against his own son, Jacob. Andy is removed from the case as his life starts to fall apart. Jacob is reclusive and apparently had been bullied by Ben. He even went so far as to buy a knife although his reasoning was unclear. Was it for protection? Because he thought it was cool? The knife definitely could have caused the three wounds on Ben's chest so what does Andy do? He gets rid of the weapon. He in no way could ever conceive that his son would be responsible for murder so he finds himself covering up some details and obsessively pursuing a pedophile who lived on the edge of the park where Ben was murdered. Disturbingly, Jacob also seems very interested in torture porn and sadism and actually posted a fictionalized (or was it?) version of the murder on a website after Ben was found.

That's the basic plot. The tone of the book really annoyed me. I just didn't like the writing style or Andy's voice as a character. I felt like some of the actions he took were really stupid (i.e. the knife situation). Granted, I'm not a parent yet so while I can imagine the absolute conviction that Andy held towards his son's innocence, I just kept shaking my head. It was obvious that something was seriously wrong with Jacob, even if he was innocent of this particular crime. But really, this is a story of a family falling apart, which by the end, it does quite tragically. That's the spoiler free part of this recap. I'm going to rant a little about more specific plot points so if you don't want to be spoiled, don't keep reading.

I talk more about this below but I definitely did not enjoy this book. It was slow going at times and frankly had an unsatisfying and depressing ending. Not my favorite.

NY Times Review

Buy it at amazon and Barnes & Noble 



Ok so first of all, there was this whole Bad Seed concept in the book about a "murder gene" (or the warrior gene, which was just a plot on Elementary. Andy's father had spent a lifetime in jail for being a killer and it turns out the two generations before him were all violent and people died around them. Andy hid this secret from his wife and son his whole life, but when it comes up as part of the defense's trial preparation, Andy is forced to go through therapy with Laurie (his wife) and has to meet up with his father for the first time in 40 or so years. Laurie then kept bringing up all of these instances where Jacob was aggressive as a child and other children got hurt. I was frustrated Andy and Laurie. She seemed to be grasping for straws to explain how her son might have killed Ben but on the other hand, Andy kept hiding all of these anecdotes. I didn't feel like he was a trustworthy narrator, and Laurie seemed too unstable. It was hard to identify with either of them. Also their speech patterns bothered me in ways that I'm having trouble articulating.

So the trial seems to have taken a turn against Jacob until Patz, the pedophile who Andy originally suspected killed himself and left a suicide confession note. This effectively frees Jacob so the family takes a trip to Jamaica (or somewhere warm; I can't remember exactly where and I don't have the book in front of me). There Jacob starts hanging out with this girl named Hope. But at some point on the trip, Hope disappears. Her body later washed up to shore, badly decomposed. It's possible that her windpipe was crushed although given the damage to her body, there was no way to know if that happened prior to her death.

The story fades out a bit there. There was no confrontation with Jacob to confirm whether or not he hurt Hope too. It was simply an unknown. Andy does confront his father at one point to find out whether he was actually behind the forced confession/suicide of Patz. His father essentially confirms this so then it calls Jacob's innocence into doubt. But the reader never really knows.

Throughout the book, there were little snippets of court transcripts between Andy (called "Witness) and Neal, the lawyer who prosecuted Jacob. At first, it seemed like maybe Andy had been indicted for obscuring evidence. Or maybe that Jacob was back on trial (although with the whole double jeopardy thing that probably isn't realistic). There were also hints throughout the book that Laurie was falling apart and because she was referred to in the past tense, one had to wonder what happened to her. It was unclear until the last few pages.

So what happened was that Laurie completely snapped. The situation with the girl, Hope, was the last straw. It was clear that she had a lot of doubts about her son's innocence and when Hope died, she blamed herself for not noticing more about his potentially violent territories. and for not helping him get treated. So at the end of the book, she speeds her car into a guardrail. Jacob was in the backseat not wearing his seat belt. Laurie tooks hers off too but she survived the crash. Jacob did not. So at the end of the book, Andy imagines what those last moments of Jacob's life was like. At the very end, Jacob came to understand how much his father had loved him. So the trial that Andy was a witness for throughout the book was Laurie's.

This seriously made me so mad. I mean in terms of storytelling it was a shocking twist, one that made me feel nauseous reading. I finished and was way more disturbed than I had been by anything Gillian Flynn had written. I also felt like this story was completely unsatisfying. Did Jacob do kill Ben? And later Hope? That was never answered. And it was really depressing at the end. Andy did EVERYTHING for his son and what did he get in the end? Nothing. His son was dead. His wife on trial for killing him. Clearly their marriage was over. How could they bounce back from that? And he was no longer working since who could take a prosecutor seriously whose own son had been accused of murder?

Ugh. I didn't like this book very much at all. There were definitely some strong moments but overall it was unsatisfying and upsetting. I can't really recommend it.


  1. Synopsis was right on point. But I couldn't disagree more about your opinion of the book. Defending Jacob was recommended to by a friend because he LOVED it, as did I. I'd recommend it to anyone who just wants a great book to read.

    1. Hey agree to disagree, right? That's the beauty of books. We all have different opinions. I hope someone sees your comment and disregards my review so they can read the book themselves and hopefully love it! For me, I've read better, more satisfying thrillers. But again, that's only my opinion! :-)

    2. Dorothy, what are some of the satisfying novels you liked more. I really liked the book but I am always looking for the shocking thriller. Please share if you see this post

    3. As I mentioned at the start of the post, I loved all three of Gillian Flynn's thrillers. I recently read The Girl on the Train which was cool (it's being made into a movie with Emily Blunt now). My newest favorites are The Cormoran Strike novels. They're written by JK Rowling (yes, the Harry Potter author) under the name Robert Gilbraith. There are three in the series out now. They're hefty books but so well done. I would characterize them as thrillers although some might just say mysteries. Until You're Mine and Reconstructing Amelia were both pretty good too. Hopefully you like something on this list. I currently write a book review weekly for the Wilkes Barre Times Leader if you want to keep an eye out for other thrillers that I review. I just did this one: Hope this helps!

  2. Found your blog googling a story synopsis since I am 1/3 of the way thru but can not keep reading because I am so bored. Sounds like I might have enjoyed the surprise plot twist, but it is soo slow and like, arguing the murder gene theory thru fiction, I just couldn't do it. Thanks for letting me finish without actually having to finish.