Review: “Defending Jacob” by William Landay


Title: Defending Jacob
Author: William Landay
Published: January 31, 2012
Genre: Mystery/Thriller
Pages: 421 (ARC edition)

This is a horrible book. It scared me. It thrilled me. It made me anxious. When I was done, if I hadn’t been sitting in a Barnes & Noble, I probably would have cried. It ruined my day.

This is the rating this book is getting:


“But Jezzy! You just said this book is horrible!”

Yes, random visitor who somehow knows my nickname, I did. If you click the “more” button, you’ll find out why this horrible book is getting a very coveted five stars out of five.

I can’t even with this book. Never before had I cursed myself for procrastinating reading a book that wasn’t for school. I was supposed to read and review this back in October 2011 because I had won it via GoodReads’s giveaways. Well, it sat in the corner of my room for some time. In early 2012, around the time the book was released, my mom mentioned that her book club was reading it, and was delighted when I loaned her my copy. When she told me she enjoyed it, I felt better about it. I hadn’t had much luck with the books I had received thus far and was ready for a change.

I’m only a casual mystery/thriller fan. I usually only read Robert B. Parker’s Spenser novels because they’re quick, witty, and, as a Bostonian, I’m a sucker for anything set in MA. Let me tell you – this book knocked my socks off. As in, it put on boxing gloves, punched me, and my socks remained while the rest of me flew and hit the wall.

Andy Barber is an ADA living in the posh suburbs of  Newton with his wife Laurie and son Jacob. A classmate of Jacob’s, Ben, is murdered in a nearby park, and Jacob is accused of the crime (courtesy of Jacob’s friend Derek). The plot revolves around how Andy tries to prove his son’s innocence, and how his wife thinks they’re both psycho because Andy comes from a long line of murderers. Yay!

This book made me uncomfortable. Extremely uncomfortable. The characters do stupid things, and there’s plenty of second-hand embarrassment to go around. Many times, I got such a hollow feeling of dread in my heart that I wanted to quit, to put the book down and never revisit it again. But I couldn’t. I was so absorbed in the book that I just had to keep going. That’s the mark of a good writer: Despite the fact that I wasn’t in love with any of the characters, I was still invested enough that the only logical answer was to keep going.

I don’t like Andy. As a person, I mean. When he discovers his son owns a knife, he throws it away instead of having it tested for blood. He dumps his family history baggage on his wife at the worst possible time. He enters Derek’s home to question him after his parents had specifically told him to stay away. He stalks the person he suspects actually killed Ben and even roughs him up one night, among other things. He just keeps. Making. Bad. Decisions.

And I’m not sure if this is Andy or the author, but one of them is sexist. I’m going to give Landay a break and assume it’s just more of Andy’s asshattery. His descriptions of women tend to be harsher than those of men. He’s always quick to point out if the person is overweight, what their boob situation is, etc. Superficial things that add nothing to the plot. There’s an instance in which he discusses one judge, Hon. Lordes, and mentions how his office calls her Judge Lard-Ass. It added nothing except my disgust with Andy as a person. Since I already wasn’t his #1 fan, having my protagonist be a shallow, sexist bastard strangely wasn’t a deal breaker. I didn’t like Jacob either. Despite this, Landay somehow made me care whether or not he was convicted.

William Landay is an amazingly gifted writer.

A good writer draws readers in, makes them feel. This novel made me extremely uncomfortable, as I said before. I really wanted to drop the book and never open it again, but I had to keep going. I felt compelled. When the evidence against Jacob mounted, I felt extreme anxiety. I didn’t care about Jacob, but I still didn’t want him falsely convicted.

A good writer is able to affect their readers. Defending Jacob affected me in a way I don’t remember many books doing. It pretty much made the rest of my day a blur.

I finished the novel while sitting in a Barnes & Noble. The snippets of court transcript scattered throughout the book were starting to make sense. Then, I finished the book. My jaw literally dropped, and I think I may have let out a small gasping noise. I just sat there for a few minutes, staring into space. I finally got myself together and walked home.

I usually listen to music while walking because it helps me think of my own novel. My ipod played, but I couldn’t concentrate. The ending was heavy on my mind. I kept thinking, “What the fuck did I just read?” Honestly, it kept me thinking for the rest of the night.

That is the mark of a good writer. I can’t remember the last time a book affected me so much. Will I ever re-read Defending Jacob? No, probably not. I don’t think my heart could take it. If I see someone looking at the book and trying to decide whether or not they should purchase it, will I tell them they’d be crazy not to? Absolutely.

This book is destined to become a courtroom drama classic, and rightfully so.

Now, if you’d excuse me, I’m going to go read a Spenser novel to bring me back to my mystery/thriller happy place.

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