A Literary Feast -- Defending Jacob's isolation

I may never have found this book on my own. That is the beauty of book clubs. Defending Jacob by William Landay was the book pick for May at my lovely South Austin Book Club. I’ve been a proud member now for almost five years, I think? If you love to read, you need to find a good book club. Not only is it one of the joys of reading to be able to discuss the book you just read, ideally with someone who has also read the book (!), but a book club serves to broaden horizons: you will read books you never would have chosen for yourself, you will be exposed to ideas you never would have come up with on your own, and you will encounter differing opinions that allow you to expand your own ways of thinking. Add some stimulating conversation and an occasional glass of wine, and it’s the perfect monthly outing. Great defense against isolation, which we will touch on in this review.

Defending Jacob is a genre right up my alley. I do love a good court case. I’ll watch A Few Good Men every day of the week and twice on Sundays. I’ve never served on a jury, but I’ve been told that the real deal is pretty boring by comparison. Not unlike how everyone thinks all nursing is like ER. TV court drama is the best, though. You would think that reading about a court case wouldn’t have the same entertainment factor, but I disagree. Jodi Picoult books are my go-to “junk food” reading, many of which involve court cases. If I had to put it in a nutshell, I would describe Defending Jacob as a better written Picoult novel (sorry, Jodi).

I will not divulge spoilers, ’cause that’s just not fair. Here’s a quick synopsis: Andy Barber is a successful assistant district attorney in a small, high-brow Massachusetts town. (Yay! Another unreliable first-person narrator– love it!) His career hits an unexpected speed bump when his own 14-year-old son is implicated in the murder of a middle school classmate. Suddenly having to switch sides of the bench is not an easy task for Andy. He trusts his son… or does he really just distrust the judicial system? It’s up to the reader to interpret, as Andy’s biased narration cannot perhaps be trusted. A former assistant D.A. himself, William Landay writes with a precise cutting edge. The structure of the book includes a running thread of a grand jury hearing in the future, in which Andy testifies. It gives just enough clues to leave the reader deliciously baffled as to what plot twists are awaiting. If you like a well-turned plot twist, you will not be disappointed.

A Literary Feast -- Mama Fu's mealThe pages flew by and I sorely neglected my house and offspring as I raced the clock to finish the book before book club. Originally, as I was reading, I didn’t think that I would be reviewing this novel with a food angle. With so much emphasis on court proceedings and crime scene investigation, what possible role could food play in the development of this story? Brilliantly, though, it does! As you will see, the author uses different meals as a symbol of the mental state of the Barber family: Andy, his wife Laurie, and their only child Jacob. Again, without spoilers, let me explain. In the months before the trial begins, the meals symbolize hope. Laurie, ever the over-achieving mom, tries to maintain a sense of normalcy by insisting on nightly family dinners where she cooks traditional “homestyle” meals like chicken pot pie with fresh string beans and lemonade. Jacob and Andy see through it: “It’s fake normal.” “Like jumbo shrimp.” The next symbolic use of food comes during the trial. The Barbers are not legally sequestered to their home, but in such a small town they feel as though they have to be, to stay far from prying eyes or worse. Even trips to the grocery store are uncomfortable, so they stick to a diet of mainly Chinese delivery. Why only Chinese? I’m sure other places deliver, even in a small town. In the words of Andy Barber, “because China City delivers and the driver speaks so little English that we did not have to feel self-conscious opening the door for him.” This is isolation in its rawest form, masterfully illustrated by a simple dinner choice. After the trial, Laurie Barber again seeks meaning in food as she looks for restoration and revival. With that goal in mind, she cooks hearty breakfasts of waffles, omelets, and hot cereal. The final use of food as a symbol of mental status, as I see it, comes at a point in the story when the Barbers are able to take a vacation. They go to a Jamaican resort where, at long last, far from nosy neighbors, they feel they can finally relax. It is a brief time of no inhibitions, expressed in food form by– what else?– an all-you-can-eat buffet.

A Literary Feast -- sleepy boys

Chompers and Treefrog… sleepy and sick.

You know? Books like this are the ones that make me think this whole “food in literature” project has merit. Such a little detail, yet it does its part to add to the atmosphere of the story. For my blog post, I chose the “isolation meal” with good reason. Even for the moms who are lucky enough not to suffer from postpartum depression, the weeks and months after the birth of a baby can feel very isolating. It’s ironic that such a feeling can pervade at at time when another human being is in need of you constantly. But it’s the truth. It’s harder to leave the house, harder to keep up with relationships, harder to feel completely human. For me, it is most evident in the wee hours of the night, when I am up so many times– the only one in the house awake, save a tiny baby who needs to eat yet again. Isolating. I saved this meal for a night when we truly felt isolated: Treefrog was still clingy and cranky after his 2-month vaccinations, Chompers had a mysterious fever that made him lethargic, clingy, and without an appetite, and the house (as you can imagine) was a total disaster. With two boys glued to my lap, I could hardly make it into the kitchen, let alone cook a meal. Mama Fu’s to the rescue! This would not be my first choice for an Asian-inspired meal, but the only one I found in our town that would deliver. Like the Barbers rationalized, it fit the bill for not having to leave the house or cook a meal. Top it off with mango sticky rice? Of course! This meal even got Chompers laughing hysterically as I sang “Get Up Offa That Thing” while he was trying to detangle rice noodles. I’ll miss that when he’s a 14-year-old moody teenager who no longer finds me funny.

A Literary Feast -- mango sticky rice

Extra mango sauce? Don’t mind if I do!

Feeling cut off from society is never a good place to be, but books like Defending Jacob– as well as a supportive book club and the occasional takeout meal– sure make the house arrest more tolerable!