William Landay’s “Defending Jacob”

William Landay’s Defending Jacob is so emotionally loaded that I find it hard to discuss this novel without ruining the suspense for potential readers.

The central premise, in my opinion? Love is blind. Especially parents’ love for their children.

They say that you can’t really know another person as well as you know yourself. Of course not. But shouldn’t we as parents know our children completely? After all, they’re our own creation.

Well, unfortunately, we can’t. Not only because our child is an individual who inherited certain characteristics of both maternal and paternal ancestors (that’s quite a big gene pool), but also because we just don’t see our offspring objectively. Often, no matter how badly our kids may have disappointed us, we tend to justify their actions and give them some slack. Because we love them unconditionally, and yes, sometimes blindly. So even if deep down we may feel that our child’s misstep is inexcusable, we still try to validate or even deny any wrongdoing.

And that’s how Andrew Barber, the protagonist in Defending Jacob, feels about his fourteen-year-old son who is on trial for the murder of a schoolmate. His love for Jacob is so all-consuming that he is in total denial—from beginning to end. Despite the overwhelming evidence against his son, Andrew, a lawyer by profession, doesn’t even consider him capable of violence, much less murder. He is willing to “go to hell and back” in order to save his child from indictment. (199)

Till the end of the novel, the readers wonder if it was Jacob who killed the boy.

William Landay raises the fascinating idea of nature vs. nurture. It seems to us quite natural to inherit talent, but can we inherit the propensity for violence too? Seems like a logical question, but it’s so scary, isn’t it, to think that you or your child may have picked from a gene pool something horrible, like murderous instincts or the lack of empathy.

Once again, just like in A Person of Interest by Susan Choi that I discussed previously, we see this loneliness imposed on the defendant and his family. “Innocent until proven guilty” seems to work only in court, not in the workplace or school or neighborhood. Andrew and Laurie Barbers used to be one of the most popular couples in their neighborhood, but now they’re being ostracized and even called “murderers.” That, on top of the horror of their teenage son being on trial.

This novel is so rich thematically that it can be discussed for hours on end. It’s a good choice for a book club.

Strongly recommend  to those who love courtroom drama.

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