Picoult’s 14th novel (after The Tenth Circle, 2006, etc.) of a school shooting begins with high-voltage excitement, then slows by the middle, never regaining its initial pace or appeal.
Peter Houghton, 17, has been the victim of bullying since his first day of kindergarten, made all the more difficult by two factors: In small-town Sterling, N.H., Peter is in high school with the kids who’ve tormented him all his life; and his all-American older brother eggs the bullies on. Peter retreats into a world of video games and computer programming, but he’s never able to attain the safety of invisibility. And then one day he walks into Sterling High with a knapsack full of guns, kills ten students and wounds many others. Peter is caught and thrown in jail, but with over a thousand witnesses and video tape of the day, it will be hard work for the defense to clear him. His attorney, Jordan McAfee, hits on the only approach that might save the unlikable kid—a variation of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder caused by bullying. Thrown into the story is Judge Alex Cormier, and her daughter Josie, who used to be best friends with Peter until the popular crowd forced the limits of her loyalty. Also found dead was her boyfriend Matt, but Josie claims she can’t remember anything from that day. Picoult mixes McAfee’s attempt to build a defense with the mending relationship of Alex and Josie, but what proves a more intriguing premise is the response of Peter’s parents to the tragedy. How do you keep loving your son when he becomes a mass murderer? Unfortunately, this question, and others, remain, as the novel relies on repetition (the countless flashbacks of Peter’s victimization) rather than fresh insight. Peter fits the profile, but is never fully fleshed out beyond stereotype. Usually so adept at shaping the big stories with nuance, Picoult here takes a tragically familiar event, pads it with plot, but leaves out the subtleties of character.
Though all the surface elements are in place, Picoult falters in her exploration of what turns a quiet kid into a murderer.