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DEFENDING JACOB by William Landay: Book Review

The Barber family could not be a more typical suburban family. The father is an attorney, the mother a former teacher, the son a fourteen-year-old middle school student.  They live near Boston, have friends, and a generally happy life.  And then the son is accused of murder.

William Landay, himself an attorney in Boston, tells a nail-biting story. Andy Barber is second-in-command in the Boston district attorney’s office and soon will probably be the head honcho.  Of course he and his wife are terribly upset when Ben, a classmate of their son Jacob, is knifed to death in a park on his way to school; after all, Jacob has known Ben since elementary school.  Andy takes over the case, dismissing the district attorney’s slight concerns over a possible conflict of interest.  Andy’s argument is that he, as the father of a fellow student at Ben’s school, has a greater interest in finding the murderer than any other assistant district attorney on the staff, an argument the district attorney reluctantly agrees to.

But then, several days later, Jacob is arrested and charged with the killing.

Of course Andy and his wife are outraged and disbelieving.  It’s true Jacob has had some problems, but they seem like typical adolescent ones–a kind of insolence, lack of respect, withdrawing into silence.  But isn’t that like all teenagers, they ask themselves?  However, the case against Jacob gets stronger with messages on Facebook and twitter.  Then Andy learns that Ben had been bullying Jacob over a period of time and that Jacob had told friends he’d take care of Ben.  But did he mean murder?

Andy has always considered himself an extremely fortunate man.  Married to the woman he fell in love with at first sight when they were both in college, living a comfortable life far different from the one he lived as a child, he seems to be sitting on top of the world.  However, Andy has a secret, one that he has never shared with anyone, even his wife. He comes from a violent family, and his father, whom he hasn’t seen in over forty years, is in prison for murder.

Andy is the book’s narrator.  He is a man who sees himself as strong, as a survivor, but inside him there is a well of fear.  Is it possible that there exists in his family a “murder gene,” something that has bypassed him but can be found in his son?

This is a story about more than a murder–it’s about a family being torn apart, being shunned by the community in which they have lived for years, of having former friends cross the street to avoid speaking to them.  Andy is put on paid leave from his job and Jacob is suspended from school.  And then comes the trial.

William Landay has written a powerful novel about the damage caused by keeping secrets, by ignoring signs of trouble, by pretending all is right when it isn’t. We are privy to Andy’s thoughts and actions, but not, I think, to his deepest feelings.  I wonder if even Andy allows himself to know his own secret thoughts and emotions; his control is so strong that I believe he thinks that if once he lets go he will cease to be the man he has made himself to be.  Behind the man’s strength is actually the vulnerability of the boy.

You can read read more about William Landay at his web site.

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