Book Review: “Defending Jacob,” by William Landay

William Landay’s bestselling novel, “Defending Jacob,” is both a legal thriller and a searing portrayal of a family’s anguish as it endures a crisis alone, abandoned by friends and neighbors.

The main character, Andy Barber, is the first assistant district attorney in a tony Boston suburb. He adores his wife, Laurie, and their son, Jacob. He is at the top of his game professionally. As the senior staff attorney reporting to the elected District Attorney, Barber gets his pick of the high-profile cases to prosecute.

When a student is found dead in a leafy park near the high school, Barber takes the case. But this is no ordinary murder. Andy Barber’s comfortable world is turned upside down when Jacob is arrested for the murder of classmate Ben Rifkin.

Landay explores these central questions: do parents really know their children, how far will they go to protect their children, and what happens to the fragile family dynamic when their beliefs about the basic goodness of their children are challenged? He also explores the variables that shape our children, from nurture versus nature to genetic behavioral predispositions.

The 14-year-old Jacob is in many ways a typical teen-ager. He is a puzzle to his parents, an unpopular student in school, and an active user of social media. He has few friends and some classmates view him as weird. He is guarded in his communications with his parents, revealing little about his life.

Andy Barber has a secret of his own. His father and grandfather were murderers. After Jacob’s arrest, he finally reveals his secret to Laurie, fearing the prosecution will use it to demonstrate the existence of a “murder gene” in his son’s DNA.

When the evidence begins to point toward Jacob, the District Attorney takes Andy Barber off the case and he is suspended with pay. Classmates tell police Jacob had a knife and a possible motive, since Ben Rifkin bullied him. And then Jacob’s fingerprint is found on the dead boy’s jacket.

The scenes where the Barbers meet with their attorney and a psychologist hired by the defense are among the most interesting in the book. During these meetings the Barbers learn some harsh, uncomfortable truths about their son. Landay, a former prosecutor, gives the reader an insider’s glimpse of the strategies and tactics of both the prosecution and defense and adds deft insights into the courts and the legal system.

As the trial progresses to its conclusion, a surprising plot twists jar the reader, but it’s the brilliant and shocking ending to this story that leaves the reader both satisfied and unsettled.

Readers who like Scott Turow will enjoy this story, though I found Landay’s characters not as complex as the characters that grace Turow’s novels. Still, this is a suspenseful story and a worthwhile read.

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