Throughout the long unfolding of House Rules, Jodi Picoult keeps so many storyline streamers whirling in the air that it would be easy just to praise her technical mastery. But though the multiple plots and narrators are, indeed, adroitly managed, what most readers will cherish is the character of Jacob Hunt, an 18-year-old high school student with Asperger's syndrome. (Jacob, in goofy teen fashion, jokes: "Asperger's. I mean, doesn't it sound like a Grade Z cut of meat? Donkey on the barbecue?")
Asperger's rules Jacob's life and the life of his family, which consists of his understandably resentful but guilty younger brother, Theo, and his wry and exhausted mom, Emma. She ensures that a sense of routine — so crucial to Jacob's emotional well-being — is strictly maintained from week to week. His clothes are color-coded in his closet; daily meals are color-coded too (Monday food is green; Tuesday, red), and his diet is restricted, since glutens and caseins spark meltdowns. As Emma observes: "Frankly, with 1 in 100 kids in the United States being diagnosed on the (autism) spectrum, I bet I could have a top-rated show on the Food Network: Alimentary Autism. Jacob doesn't share my culinary enthusiasm. He says that I'm what you'd get if you crossed Jenny Craig with Josef Mengele."
What propels House Rules out of Picoult's home category of the sharply observed domestic drama and into the overlapping genre of crime fiction is Jacob's obsession with forensic science. Thanks to his mom's birthday gift of a police scanner radio, Jacob has even turned up at a couple of crime scenes, unnerving the police. So, when Jacob's tutor — a lovely college student who's been working with him on his social skills — is found dead, the police (and even Emma and Theo) suspect that Jacob's obsession with crime scenes may have led him to stage one of his own.
Inspired plot twists ensue. But it's Jacob who will linger with readers, desperate to connect with others yet hampered in his ability to do so. This superb novel makes us inhabit his solitude.