Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for House Rules includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Jodi Picoult. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
Life in the Hunt family is not exactly easy. Emma’s eldest son, Jacob, has Asperger’s Syndrome and lives a life driven by routine. Certain meals must be prepared on certain days, certain television shows much be watched at certain times, and all change must be planned for weeks in advance. Any unannounced break from the routine could send Jacob into a panic.
Like many other kids with AS, Jacob has a fixation on a particular subject—in his case, forensic science. Jacob keeps a police scanner in his room and likes to show up at crime scenes, providing analysis of the situation to stunned police officers—and, Jacob’s analysis is usually correct. But when his social skills tutor is found dead, the police turn their attention to Jacob. He is ultimately arrested and charged with murder, and he has to stand trial to prove his innocence.
Due to Asperger’s Syndrome, Jacob has trouble making eye contact and has constant tics and twitches, which seem suspicious to law officers and a jury. Jacob knows he is innocent, but he can’t seem to make anyone around him understand.
In House Rules, bestselling author Jodi Picoult explores how a family deals with the effects of autism, and how those who communicate differently are challenged by a justice system that will not accommodate them.
1. House Rules is narrated by five characters: Emma, Jacob and Theo Hunt, lawyer Oliver Bond, and Detective Rich Matson. How do each of these characters bring a different perspective to the novel? How would the reading experience have been different if one of the narrators’ perspectives was removed from the novel?
2. How do you feel about Jacob’s initial decision to cover up Jess’s death and falsely implicate Mark Maguire? Do you think he was fully aware of the consequences of his actions from the beginning? If not, is there a point in the novel where he begins to realize the enormity of what he’s done?
3. “I don’t get into trouble because rules are what keep me sane. . . . I do what I’m told; I just wish everyone else would do it, too.” Discuss what an ideal world for Jacob would be like. Other than a strict adherence to the rules, what values do you think Jacob would like for others to hold as strongly as he does?
4. Emma maintains that she loves both of her sons equally, although she acknowledges that most of her time and attention is taken up by Jacob. What are your feelings regarding the way Emma treats Theo? Do you hold her or Jacob accountable for letting Theo go unnoticed and friendless to the point of breaking into other people’s homes? Why or why not?
5. “It’s wrong, I know that. But all the same, I go inside.” Discuss Theo’s hobby of breaking into and stealing from other people’s houses. What are his reasons for doing so, and what does he gain from these experiences—other than a few cups of tea and a video game he can’t use?
6. “It’s a room with no windows and no doors, and walls that are thin enough for me to see and hear everything but too thick to break through. I’m there, but I’m not there. I am pounding to be let out, but nobody can hear me.” Children with Asperger’s Syndrome can have what Emma refers to as an “autistic meltdown,” where they are helpless to their sudden, overwhelming panic. This quote describes how Jacob feels when he has entered this state. Discuss the range of emotions Emma feels during Jacob’s meltdowns. Do her feelings differ when they are in public as opposed to when they are in private?
7. After seeing Jacob’s rainbow quilt on the news, Emma describes herself as feeling “caught between what you want and what you should do” (159). Ultimately, she decides to call Detective Matson and bring Jacob down to the police station. Do you think Emma does the right thing? What do you think she is trying to accomplish by doing so?
8. How does Theo’s interaction with his father in San Francisco change his attitude toward Henry? Why does he erupt into laughter when Henry offers him a few twenty-dollar bills? Is the short trip also a turning point for Emma? If so, how?
9. Henry plays a significant role in the novel, even if he didn’t play a significant role in Jacob and Theo’s lives prior to the trial. Yet despite his importance, the author does not grant him the opportunity to narrate a single chapter from his point of view. Why do you think this is?
10. “…if I can convince a suspect I’m the second coming of his long-dead grandma and the only way to salvation is to confess to me, so be it.” The delicate balance between right and wrong is a balance Jodi Picoult often explores in her novels. Detective Matson may be the perfect example. Take a look at some of his actions throughout the novel. Can any of them be considered absolutely right or absolutely wrong? Or do they all fall into the gray area in between? Ultimately, what is your group’s verdict on him? Is he a “good cop” or a “bad cop”?
11. Emma and Oliver come together romantically when they are both in times of distress; Emma is drained from the trial and a lifetime of trying to protect her son, and Oliver is frightened and insecure about his competence as a lawyer. Do you think their relationship will last past the trial? What are some of the obstacles they face, and how might they overcome them?
12. Oliver has to fight for the accommodations necessary to give Jacob a fair trial. In your opinion, whose responsibility is it to ensure each suspect is given this fair trial? Ultimately, do you think Jacob receives the fair trial he deserves?
13. Discuss how the balance of honesty versus deception is played out in the novel. Which characters are willing to compromise honesty to get what they want? Are any of the characters not willing to compromise honesty, no matter what the cost?
14. The final case study in the book—“Case 11: My Brother’s Keeper”—outlines the events that occurred in the course of the novel. It ends with a single line: “I’d do it all over again.” Does this line reveal anything new about Jacob? Does it change your feelings toward him in any way?
Reading Group Enhancers
1. Learn more about Asperger’s Syndrome and autism by visiting the Autism Society of America’s Web site at www.autism-society.org.
2. Emma mentions that she had to fight for Jacob’s Individualized Education Program (IEP), just like she and Oliver had to fight for Jacob’s accommodations in the courtroom. Research the availability of IEPs in your state. What is the process for obtaining one?
3. There are many ways to help children with Asperger’s Syndrome and autism, whether by volunteering your time or donating money to research programs. Visit www.networkforgood.org/topics/health/autism/ to learn about programs in your area.
4. Emma prepares gluten-free, casein-free (GFCF) meals for Jacob because she believes this type of diet helps him function. Research what foods can be consumed on this type of diet, and try to plan a day’s worth of GFCF meals. Discuss with the group what it would be like to suddenly make this dietary switch in your own family.
5. If your group is interested in learning more about Jodi Picoult’s upcoming projects, try following her on Facebook, Twitter (@jodipicoult), or visit her Web site at www.jodipicoult.com.
A Conversation with Jodi Picoult
How did you first decide upon Asperger’s Syndrome as the focus for this novel?
JP: I have a cousin who’s autistic. Several times, my aunt found herself in a public place trying to control one of his meltdowns – and people who didn’t understand why she was restraining him contacted authorities and made allegations of abuse. As he got older, and moved into a group home, his frustrations became more intense because of his size – he’d break in windows with his fist, for example – and several times the police were called. It got me thinking that the legal system works really well, if you communicate a certain way. But if you don’t, it all goes to Hell in a handbasket really quickly. A lot of the hallmark behaviors of autism – flat affect, stimming, not looking someone in the eye – could very easily be misinterpreted as signs of guilt.
You have been known to do extensive research about the topics in your books. What was the research process like for this novel?
JP: In addition to meeting with attorneys to get the legal information accurate, I met with six teens with Asperger’s, and their parents – face to face. Even though some of the kids were very awkward in a direct setting, I needed to experience that to understand how the rest of the world would feel coming in contact with Jacob. But kids with Asperger’s, who are so smart, shine when you let them answer questions on paper. So another 35 teens and their parents answered lengthy questionnaires for me about themselves, their reactions to situations, their lives, their hopes, their frustrations. It made for some incredible reading, and many of their direct experiences wound up in Jacob’s life. One of these young women with Asperger’s Syndrome was so detailed in her writing and so open about her experiences that she volunteered to help me further. She read the manuscript for accuracy and told me, based on Jacob’s voice, what seemed consistent and what, in her opinion, Jacob would never say or do. The last bit of research I did was incredibly fun – I shadowed a CSI for a week. I got to learn blood spatter analysis, to do presumptive semen tests, to check out crime scenes, and to observe an autopsy. It was fascinating!
When your central characters are in a real-life situation that affects so many people around the world—in this case, dealing with the effects of Asperger’s Syndrome and autism on a family—is there more pressure on you as the author to “get it right”?
JP: It doesn’t really matter whether it’s Asperger’s or a rape victim or a cancer patient – when research subjects open up to me with such honesty I ALWAYS feel a responsibility to “get it right.”
If you could say one thing to the families who are dealing with the effects of having an autistic child, what would it be?
JP: That you’re not alone – and that, hopefully, more and more people will come to understand that a child who’s “different from” is not one who is “lesser than.”
In a previous interview, you referred to your novels taking part in a long line of “moral and ethical fiction.” When you first began writing, did you have the intention of using your work as a springboard for conversation about moral and ethical issues? Or did that come later on?
JP: I think I started gravitating toward that sort of niche as I kept writing. I have always written about subjects that engage me – questions I can’t answer myself. They apparently tend to be big moral and ethical issues! But I never lose sight of the fact that before I was a writer, I was a teacher. I still am. My classroom’s just gotten a little bigger.
House Rules is your seventeenth novel. Do you feel your writing has changed since your first novel? If so, was it an intentional change, or is it something you’ve noticed over time?
JP: I think my writing has become “cleaner.” By that I mean that technically I’ve improved – I might turn a metaphor in five words now, where years ago, it would have taken me a paragraph. I can’t say it was intentional – but you know what they say about practice making perfect…!
Why did you choose to end the book when you did, rather than going into what happens to the characters in the aftermath of the trial?
JP: Because at heart, this is Jacob’s book. And remember, to Jacob, there was never any real mystery here, was there?
Could you talk for a moment about Emma’s character and her struggles throughout the book? You’ve said that your characters’ voices come to you, that they take on a life of their own. Did you find yourself agreeing with Emma’s choices as the novel progressed?
JP: I think Emma is a very typical, very overwhelmed mom. A lot of the moms of autistic kids I met are so consumed with being their child’s advocate that there’s no room for anything else – least of all themselves. It’s why so many marriages end in divorce, when a child is diagnosed on the spectrum. Emma’s journey in this book is one of unwinding – allowing herself to define herself as more than just Jacob’s mother, because that’s been completely eroded by his autism.
If the main characters in this novel had favorite books, what do you think they would be?
JP: What a great question! I think Jacob’s would be, clearly, anything written by Dr. Henry Lee. Oliver would love Presumed Innocent by Turow – it’s probably why he decided to go to law school. Theo would read Vonnegut. He wouldn’t understand Vonnegut, but he’d think it’s the kind of thing a rebel would read. Rich – I think he’s a closet softy, the kind of guy who’s got a dog-eared copy of The Sun Also Rises in his nightstand. And dare I hope that Emma reads Jodi Picoult novels?
Could you give us a glimpse into your next project?
JP: Sing You Home, the 2011 book, is the story of Zoe Baxter, who has spent ten years trying to get pregnant. After multiple miscarriages and infertility issues, it looks like her dream is about to come true – she is seven months pregnant. But a terrible turn of events takes away the baby she has already fallen for; and breaks apart her marriage to Max. In the aftermath, she throws herself into her career as a music therapist – using music clinically to soothe burn victims in a hospital; to help Alzheimer’s patients connect with the present; to provide solace for hospice patients. When Vanessa – a guidance counselor – asks her to work with a suicidal teen, their relationship moves from business to friendship and then, to Zoe’s surprise, blossoms into love. When Zoe allows herself to start thinking of having a family, again, she remembers that there are still frozen embryos that were never used by herself and Max.
Meanwhile, Max has found peace at the bottom of a bottle – until he is redeemed by an evangelical church, whose charismatic pastor – Clive Lincoln – has vowed to fight the “homosexual agenda” that has threatened traditional family values in America. But this mission becomes personal for Max, when Zoe and her same-sex partner say they want permission to raise his unborn child.
Sing You Home explores what it means to be gay in today’s world, and how reproductive science has outstripped the legal system. Are embryos people or property? What challenges do same-sex couples face when it comes to marriage and adoption? What happens when religion and sexual orientation – two issues that are supposed to be justice-blind – enter the courtroom? And most importantly, what constitutes a “traditional family” in today’s day and age?
Also – in a very unique move – readers will get to literally hear Zoe Baxter’s voice. I am collaborating with Ellen Wilber, a dear friend who is also a very talented musician, to create a CD of original songs, which will correspond to each of the chapters. This CD will be packaged with each hardcover book. So – literally – stay tuned!