Defending Jacob

“Damage hardens us all. It will harden you too, when it finds you – and it will find you.”

-William Landay, Defending Jacob

Summary: Andy Barber has been an assistant district attorney in his suburban Massachusetts county for more than twenty years. He is respected in his community, tenacious in the courtroom, and happy at home with his wife, Laurie, and son, Jacob. But when a shocking crime shatters their New England town, Andy is blindsided by what happens next: His fourteen-year-old son is charged with the murder of a fellow student.

Overall Rating: 10/10

After the thrill ride that was Knives Out, I found myself in need to find a good mystery to keep myself from falling back into my rut of coming-of-age teen novels. I found Defending Jacob on accident while I was going through my mom’s Kindle library and looking for something to fill the days between This Side of Paradise and Chain of Gold. This was one of those books that I finished in two days and absolutely couldn’t put down. I started it on my spring break as I found myself sitting in a little makeshift Parisian cafe with a cream filled Danish and some hot chocolate and finished it while in my bed.

Starting from the top, I was immediately struck by how simple this novel was. It’s told in first person by Andy Barber who is an assistant district attorney. Typically, I like mysteries to be told in third person, finding that I like to know more than the characters but in this story, the reader is forced to find out the verdicts alongside everyone else. The novel’s structure shifts back and forth from Barber being cross-examined by a lawyer in court but we don’t know exactly why he’s being cross-examined. It’s almost immediately clear that the initial cross-examination takes place after the trial to determine who killed Ben Rifkin but the reader isn’t sure why we’re reading this testimony. The novel then flashes back to the initial trial, starting with the discovery of Ben’s body and working through how Barber’s son, Jacob, is eventually thought to be the killer.

In terms of point of view, this novel was interesting because Barber is essentially an unreliable narrator (one of my favorite techniques when it comes to mysteries or any story told in the first person) because he is Jacob’s father. Plenty of evidence comes up that even convinces his wife to believe that their son is guilty, but Barber is insistent that Jacob did not commit this murder. The point of view connects to an overall theme of parental love and raises the question: how far would a parent go for their child? Since Barber is also the ADA on this case, he is privy to a lot of information about the case, making it almost too easy for him to tamper with the evidence, which was originally where I thought this story was going.

I was wrong. Barber is taken off the case relatively early in the story and spends the rest of the book desperately trying to figure out how to win his son’s case. This doesn’t mean that Barber doesn’t tamper with some evidence and this does come back to haunt him later on, as it raises the question of if Barber doubts his own son – something he often verbally denies – and if he is just protecting him out of a sense of duty. Barber, himself, also wants Jacob to be acquitted for selfish reasons. Barber’s family has a history of violence which serves as an interesting psychological investigation of a gene known as “the murder gene”. The gene skipped over Barber himself, but he kept much of his family history to himself and his wife and son only find out after the trial begins. This raises another prevalent theme in the story: are certain personality traits predetermined or are they developed based on exposure to a certain environment? I think because of the contrast between Barber and Jacob, no clear answer is given to this question, but it does leave the reader with something to think about.

While there are several points of interest within this novel, I find that the underlying commentary on the state of the legal system is the most compelling. Barber is a lawyer himself but for him, he admits readily that he never really thought of the legal costs for the people he was defending as long as he got paid and could take care of his family. When he is on the other side, he realizes how much of a toll the financial and emotional costs take on the defendants. I think Barber says it best: “…crime stories I never fully appreciated until I became one: it is so ruinously expensive to mount a defense that, innocent or guilty, the accusation is itself a devastating punishment. Every defendant pays a price.” This is the most devastating takeaway. I think that guilty or not, Landay wants his readers to contemplate the justice system and implore it to be better. I find this even more compelling as he is a licensed lawyer himself and much of this must come from some of his own cases.

I very rarely gush about a book to the point where I can’t stop talking or thinking about it, but Defending Jacob was one of those books. It’s a poignant story that keeps the reader guessing at every turn; even when the story feelings predictable, it’s not and this adds to the intricacy of such a seemingly simple book. As these are thoughts and everyday occurrences, the book reads well and the tone of the story is one that prevents the reader from truly knowing who to support. This story parallels any kind of trial because the reader is never given a real answer. A jury can convict, but only the defendant knows if they are truly guilty or not and like this story, it’s a constant guessing game that nobody can ever truly win.

TL;DR: An unwinnable guessing game that takes the reader on a bumpy but overall, very fun rollercoaster ride of legal drama that builds a strong commentary on the faults of the American legal system.

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