Defending Jacob is a complex, compelling, and cleverly written novel about the fragility of family relationships, corruption and the inherent injustice of the criminal law system set against the backdrop of the universal theme of “nature vs nurture”. Some critics have praised this book as an “exceptionally serious, suspenseful, engrossing” story whilst others critiqued the writing as “inexplicable bursts of clunky, cliché-ridden prose and huge dumps of exposition.” So is this novel worth your time? Let’s dissect it a little further.
It’s important to keep in mind that William Landay was a former Assistant District Attorney (ADA)in Massachusetts for seven years before becoming a writer. Subsequently, his writing style and use of language will not be universally appealing. However, the intrigue of the story lies within the plot and characterization: it is set in a small town where ADA Andy Barber is investigating the death of a 14-year-old boy, Ben Rifkin. His life is quickly turned upside down when his own teenage son Jacob becomes a prime suspect in the trial due to a series of online claims and incriminating evidence. What draws the reader in is the pace at which Landay switches between court-room tension and family drama as well as the chilling exploration of the psychology behind human capacity for murder.
Landay provides an unflinching, complex and cynical perspective of America’s criminal justice system and the court-room scenes are as riveting as it is realistic. He writes, “the towering lie of the criminal justice system (is) that we can reliably determine the truth” and “the human element in any system is always prone to error, why should the courts be any different?” to fracture our romanticized ideals that equates law with justice.
The novel exposes the legal system as inherently flawed and broken, Andy Barber betrays his duties as the ADA easily when it comes to protecting his son from the appearance of guilt; whilst prosecutor Neal Logiudice is almost more intent on beating Andy than he is at ensuring that he is following court procedure, viciously attacking Jacob’s innocence and distorting inadmissible evidence to get a conviction at any cost.
However, the main point of interest in this novel is the portrayal of family relationships; the Barbers’ struggle with their ostracization from the community as well as Laurie’s (Jacob’s mother) insurmountable guilt and suspicion over her son’s actions.
Is blood really thicker than water? Can you love your family but still question their innocence? Is it bad parenting to question whether your child is capable of murder? These are the questions that Landay asks the reader to consider as we follow the Barber family through their pretense of normality, which is shattered and bandaged back together constantly.
I especially loved the characterization of Laurie as she struggles with her love for her son against a growing suspicion of his guilt, her initial attempts at maintaining some semblance of normalcy is continuously disrupted by hard truths and the damning evidence against Jacob— ultimately driving her closer and closer to the brink of insanity. Further, her struggles with isolation from her friends and the hatred from the community are painfully human and relatable, another reason why I believe she is a stand-out character in the novel.
It would be impossible to discuss a book titled ‘Defending Jacob’ without talking about Jacob Barber and his embodiment of the “nature vs nurture” debate. Jacob appears to be a normal, if not withdrawn and introverted 14 year old boy until that illusion is shattered when he becomes a suspect in the murder trial of Ben Rifkin. As human beings, we often struggle with the concept that children are anything but innocent.
Landay writes, “the interior of a teenager’s mind is an endless war between stupid and clever”, but Jacob’s predisposition is influenced by the ‘murder’ gene that runs through three generations of Barber men. We are put in a position to question whether our behaviour is determined by our environment or by our genetics? Interestingly but perhaps unsurprinsgly, Laurie also grapples with the reality of her son’s propensity of murder — culminating in an “all too painful, all too real and all too haunting” conclusion of the novel.
Defending Jacob is riveting, heartbreaking, suspenseful and poignant all at once. It looks at human nature via the lens of a corrupt criminal justice system to expose what happens when normalcy is up-ended, when we are forced to confront the truth of who we are and the truth of our relationships with the ones we thought we loved the most.
Landay does not tie up the ending neatly in a bow for the reader, the final reflects the true beauty of this novel, reminding us that damage hardens us all and leaves an irreparable hole in our lives. This is a story that stays with you long after you have turned the last page and it has now been turned into a TV series streaming on Apple TV+. With such an engrossing, suspenseful plot — it’s really no surprise that a TV adaption has come out, is it as good as the book? I’ll leave that for you to decide.