I admired the first half of Jodi Picoult’s Nineteen Minutes. Based on what others have told me about her books, I expected it to be melodramatic, predictable, and manipulative. That’s not what I found at all in the first half of the novel.
The story unfolds around Peter Houghton, a bullied high school student who comes to school one day and attacks his tormentors as well as other randomly chosen students. Picoult provides credible, compelling storylines for Peter, his family, his friend from early childhood, the bullies, and the legal system figures who become involved in investigating the crime, Peter’s past, and his motives.
For the most part, the social caste system of Peter Houghton’s high school was recognizable to me. (The student body of our school is not perfect—no student body is—but we do not have the same levels of student intolerance and faculty obliviousness as the fictional Sterling High.) Still, some aspects of Picoult’s fictionalizing struck me as inauthentic. For example, one student, Haley, is described as “a senior, homecoming queen for the past two years.” In most schools, the homecoming queen is selected from the senior class, so it’s a rare situation when someone would be queen for two consecutive years, even if her popularity were substantial enough to be elected twice. Picoult also mentions that a foreign exchange student is wounded in the shooting spree, but she then describes some hijinks performed by that exchange student “last year.” Again, foreign exchange students are not typically in the same school for more than one academic year.
A final example of inauthenticity occurs when school reconvenes for the first time at a new, temporary site several days after the shootings. The school day begins in homeroom. As the students gather, Picoult describes their varying activities, including this: “A guy was copying someone else’s math notes.” I won’t say that nobody ever copies “math notes”–math classes tend to have less “notes” than other classes–but I will say that on the first day of homeroom in a new location after several days out of school after a traumatic event, no one is sitting there copying math notes.
Still, the first half of Nineteen Minutes successfully creates a believable setting and interesting, complex, sympathetic characters. The second half of the book, however, becomes more plot-oriented and devolves into various romantic entanglements between characters and maudlin, cringe-inducing behavior.
It’s no surprise that Nineteen Minutes has a surprise ending. No spoiler alert is needed here because I’m not going to say what it was. I did predict it though, on page 434. I even wrote it down, just to see if I was right. Sure enough, my page 434 guess was rolled out on page 440 exactly as I saw it coming. Many others are sharper at noticing plot possibilities, so I challenge you to see if you can call it sooner. There are clues a-plenty.
So, is this book worth your time? Maybe. If you’re interested in the school shooting phenomenon, it appears as a storyline in Wally Lamb’s The Hour I First Believed and Kathryn Erskine’s excellent YA novel Mockingbird, although in both of those books, a school shooting is not the primary plot element. Jodi Picoult puts a Columbine-style school shooting front and center in Nineteen Minutes, and she does an excellent job of helping us see the people and the motives behind the headlines. If you’re a reader who is trying to understand the minds of shooters, survivors and family members, this book is probably worth your time.
If understanding the mind of a shooter is your goal, a better choice is Columbine by Dave Cullen. This excellent work of nonfiction accomplishes everything that Picoult attempts in Nineteen Minutes. It is just as compelling and engaging of a read, and the lessons of Columbine are more accurately and sharply delivered. It’s a more uncomfortable book, and that’s probably as it should be. Dave Cullen visited our school this year during our Writers Week XVII. Here is an excerpt from his presentation:
Maybe the best reason to read Nineteen Minutes is because a lot of high school kids are reading it. It is helping them understand some things about themselves and those with whom they share space each day. Many of my students have read Nineteen Minutes, and many of them have read Cullen’s Columbine. I’m not aware of any who have read both. If we want to know how students are processing the phenomenon of school shootings, it might be worthwhile to read both books.
I’ll close with these hopeful words of advice from Jodi Picoult to high school students from the Readers Book Club Guide for Nineteen Minutes: “Stay the course. You will find someone like you; you will fit in one day. And know that even the cool kids, the popular kids, worry that someone will find out their secret: that they worry about fitting in, just like you do.”