(Audio)Book Talk: DEFENDING JACOB, by William Landay

DEFENDING JACOB William Landay indiebounddotorgDefending Jacob: A Novel
William Landay
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Audiobook read by Grover Gardner
Bantam (2013), Paperback (ISBN 0345533666 / 9780345533661)
Fiction (genre: suspense/legal thriller), 448 pages
Source: Purchased audiobook (Blackstone Audio, 2012; Audible ASIN B0073OGZNM)

SGW at The Cue Card neatly summed up this novel very much as I would have, so I’m just going to quote her:

Defending Jacob has all the elements of a riveting Presumed Innocent courtroom crime drama. It reminded me a bit of the 1987 Scott Turow classic mixed perhaps slightly with Lionel Shriver’s 2003 novel We Need to Talk About Kevin–it’s just a bit different and maybe not as intense.”

Neither of those comparisons should be construed as an insult, in my opinion. I’m not a big genre-fiction reader, but when I have read genre, the legal thriller/”courtroom drama” has been one of my favorites, and Presumed Innocent is one of the best examples of it I know. And the brilliant, shocking We Need to Talk About Kevin was on my 2013 Books of the Year list.

The …Kevin resemblance jumped out at me fairly quickly, and for one reason in particular: the mothers in both novels were able to see their sons as capable of committing horrible acts of violence, while the fathers downplayed or denied the possibility. Other than in tone, I didn’t connect Defending Jacob with Presumed Innocent until very late in the story.

While listening to the audiobook, I had commented that the characters were annoying me, but I couldn’t have articulated exactly why at the time. I realized later that it was because their interactions with each other were frequently so true to life–conversations where one person didn’t really listen to the other, and behavior based on assumptions and lack of self-awareness–that they were just frustrating the devil out of me. I don’t know whether I’ve ever told characters in an audiobook to “shut up and listen” more than I did during Defending Jacob, but I think that’s a good indicator of how well-developed the human drama of this novel is.

I think author William Landay’s choice to use Jacob’s father Andy as the first-person narrator is effective for the emotional impact, but in other respects his role in the story feels dramatically contrived. For that reason, I think the novel might have worked better for me overall in third person and/or with at least one other perspective. That said, reading in first person can make an audiobook performance both more intimate and authoritative, and I thought Grover Gardner handled it extremely well.

Now for the twist: I realize I may be sounding fairly negative about this novel, but I don’t mean to at all. Defending Jacob is a compelling blend of legal and family drama, and even if its characters did annoy me, I was eager to see how their story played out. The novel is a little overloaded in some respects–I felt like there didn’t need to be quite so much Barber-family backstory to establish one of the central themes–and a bit underdeveloped in others, but it raises some big, thorny questions that would make it a great book-club pick.

Rating: Book, 3.5 of 5; Audio, 3.75 of 5
Other reviews, via the Book Blogs Search Engine

Book description, from the publisher’s website:

Andy Barber has been an assistant district attorney for two decades. He is respected. Admired in the courtroom. Happy at home with the loves of his life: his wife, Laurie, and their teenage son, Jacob.
Then Andy’s quiet suburb is stunned by a shocking crime: a young boy stabbed to death in a leafy park. And an even greater shock: The accused is Andy’s own son—shy, awkward, mysterious Jacob.
Andy believes in Jacob’s innocence. Any parent would. But the pressure mounts. Damning evidence. Doubt. A faltering marriage. The neighbors’ contempt. A murder trial that threatens to obliterate Andy’s family.
It is the ultimate test for any parent: How far would you go to protect your child? It is a test of devotion. A test of how well a parent can know a child. For Andy Barber, a man with an iron will and a dark secret, it is a test of guilt and innocence in the deepest sense.

From Chapter One:

“In April 2008, Neal Logiudice finally subpoenaed me to appear before the grand jury. By then it was too late. Too late for his case, certainly, but also too late for Logiudice. His reputation was already damaged beyond repair, and his career along with it. A prosecutor can limp along with a damaged reputation for a while, but his colleagues will watch him like wolves and eventually he will be forced out, for the good of the pack. I have seen it many times: an ADA is irreplaceable one day, forgotten the next.

“I have always had a soft spot for Neal Logiudice…With the best intentions, he smashed people’s lives and never lost a minute of sleep over it. He only went after bad guys, after all. That is the Prosecutor’s Fallacy-They are bad guys because I am prosecuting them-and Logiudice was not the first to be fooled by it, so I forgave him for being righteous. I even liked him. I rooted for him precisely because of his oddities, the unpronounceable name, the snaggled teeth-which any of his peers would have had straightened with expensive braces, paid for by Mummy and Daddy-even his naked ambition. I saw something in the guy. An air of sturdiness in the way he bore up under so much rejection, how he just took it and took it. He was obviously a working-class kid determined to get for himself what so many others had simply been handed. In that way, and only in that way, I suppose, he was just like me.”

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