Nineteen Minutes Summary

Jodi Picoult

Nineteen Minutes

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Nineteen Minutes Summary

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Nineteen Minutes, by Jodi Picoult, centers around the nineteen minutes of a high school shooting rampage that scars the lives of the perpetrator, 17-year-old Peter Houghton, and all those whom his life touches. Bullied since Kindergarten, Peter is the second son in a family where his parents favor his older brother, Joey. When Joey is killed in a car accident, his grief-stricken parents have no attention or emotion left for Peter. According to Picoult, on top of his parents’ emotional distance, relentless bullying and betrayal of his only friend, Josie Courmier, led to Peter’s moment of truth, in which he snaps, and takes his revenge amongst his schoolmates.

Among those Peter kills is Josie’s current boyfriend, Matt. Matt is the leader of the jock clique, and he regularly and relentlessly bullied Peter and encouraged his jock friends to bully Peter too, partly out of jealousy to keep Peter away from Josie. In one instance, after Peter has told Josie that he has feelings for her, Matt pulls Peter’s pants down in front of a full lunchroom to humiliate him further.

Altogether nine students and one teacher are killed and nineteen more are injured. When the police arrive in the high school, the chief detective finds Josie and Peter in the boy’s locker room, with Matt lying, shot twice, and dead. Josie, certain to be called as a prime witness for the prosecution, says that she cannot remember what happened during the shooting. But can she?

Josie’s mother, Alex, is the judge for Peter’s case, in the small town of Sterling, New Hampshire, where no one can imagine such an event happening in their idyllic town. Though her prose is deftly written, Picoult’s plotline consists largely of feel-good emotional connections at the expense of deeper, more disturbing or realistic, insights. For example, in the midst of the turmoil and angst of the murder investigation and trial, the handsome police detective, Patrick Ducharme, falls in love with superior court judge and single mother, Alex Courmier.

Writing against stereotypes, however, in one element, Picoult confronts a taboo subject by imagining the pain and the loss experienced by the parents of the shooter, forcing the reader to empathize with their horror, as their beloved child becomes a monster. For example, the reader glimpses the remorse and depression experienced by Peter’s mother, who cannot help but see Peter as her sensitive little boy rather than a killer.

In turn, Picoult emphasizes the relentless nature of the bullying Peter endured, from his first day in Kindergarten through the momentous day in his junior year of high school when he changed everything. Picoult writes of how such bullying changes a person.

Using flashback techniques to tell each character’s life story, the reader comes to understand how Josie became involved with Matt, who became cruel and abusive to her also. Wanting to preserve her social position at school in the popular crowd, which she believed was at least partly due to her dating Matt, she sacrificed her childhood friendship with Peter, devastating him and trapping both of them as Matt’s victims.

It turns out that Josie may remember much more of the shooting than she admits; as the only victim shot twice, the reader eventually learn that Josie shot Matt in the stomach, leaving Peter to kill him by shooting him in the head.

In Picoult’s terms, many members of the community are guilty of various emotional and social crimes, particularly the adults who avoid confronting the facts of their children bullying and being bullied, though only one is held responsible. In court, Peter’s lawyer attempts to use a post-traumatic stress defense in recounting Peter’s extensive suffering during his bullying experiences. Peter never tells anyone that Josie shot Matt first. However, Josie tells the truth on the witness stand, and eventually she receives a five-year sentence for manslaughter. Peter is convicted of eight counts of first-degree murder and two counts of second-degree murder; his sentence is life imprisonment. A month after his conviction, Peter kills himself in prison.

The book ends a year later, as Josie receives regular visits in prison from her mother, Alex, who is now married to Patrick Ducharme. They are expecting their first child. They visit the high school, where the building has been completely renovated to erase the past; a memorial of ten white chairs bolted to the floor stand as a monument for all that has been lost.