A Novel by William Landay
2012 / 432 Pages
William Landay’s 2012 crime novel follows Andy Barber, a Massachusetts lawyer, as he and his family are thrust into both legal and social controversy. When the body of a 14 year-old boy is discovered in a public park, Andy is sure that the killer is a local pedophile, but his world is turned upside down when the evidence starts pointing toward his own son, Jacob, as the killer.
Andy and his wife, Laurie, are completely unprepared for such an accusation and relentlessly insist that their son is innocent. But as the case unravels and clues surface, Jacob’s innocence becomes more and more questionable. In spite of the mounting evidence against Jacob, Andy will do anything to protect his teenage son, including destroying evidence and lying. Laurie, on the other hand, is beginning to wonder how much they really know about Jacob and his life outside of their family. Told retrospectively from Andy’s point of view, Defending Jacob is a fast-faced thriller, but readers may notice some familiar themes and plot points.
I couldn’t help but compare Defending Jacob to Lionel Shriver’s magnificent 2003 novel We Need to Talk About Kevin. Both feature teenage boys accused of killing fellow classmates told from the perspective of a bewildered parent. Both address the nature vs. nurture debate, and both feature fathers who turn a blind eye to the misdeeds of their children. A compelling plotline, yes, but I have to say, I strongly prefer Shriver’s novel.
Defending Jacob is highly entertaining, don’t get me wrong. But it lacks the urgency and insight that We Need to Talk About Kevin offers. Landay is quite successful at capturing the father’s dilemma here, but his insight into the thoughts and emotions of other characters falls short. And I just cannot ignore the tendency toward sexism in Andy’s narrative. I’ll give the author the benefit of the doubt and assume that Andy’s offensive and archaic notions of women are character flaws limited to Andy Barber and not representative of the author, himself. But still…let’s look at the following excerpts:
- No, the epiphany I had looking at Laurie’s notebook was not that she was smart but that she was unknowable. She was every bit as complex as I was
- I felt crude and embarrassed before the women, whose emotional sensibilities were so much finer than mine.
- I picked up the wifely habit of planning the week’s dinner menus in my head as I shopped
It doesn’t help that many of the other female characters are reduced to stereotypes: soccer moms, an “Earth mother” psychiatrist, and a disliked female judge who Andy refers to as “Lard-Ass Rivera.” All of this makes for a very frustrating and churlish protagonist, which was, in all likelihood, the author’s intent. Even so, the narrative was just downright obnoxious sometimes.
Despite these flaws, the book shines as story that questions family dynamics and family loyalty. As Andy is dealing with his son’s accusation and trial, Mr. Barber is simultaneously (and begrudgingly) reunited with his own father. Andy never had a healthy relationship with his own dad, which makes him all the more inclined to support his son and break the cycle, but his anger and resentment is so strong that he just ends up screwing up all the same relationships he is trying so hard to preserve. So how do you fix problems and relationships when you yourself are broken and controlled by anger and resentment? Andy insists that he’s not, but everyone else has a different picture of his persona.
The book is overall compelling and quite engaging, but I struggled to find a likeable, empathetic character in the novel. I will say that Landay did an excellent job in providing readers with an understandable and clear (but not condescending) explanation of the legal system. The book is filled with court scenes and trial transcripts, but it never felt boring or overwhelming. And the ending is quite unexpected! But even still, Andy Barber is no Eva Khatchadourian.