How Two Novels Handle Contemporary Issues

How skillfully novelists handle contemporary issues can distinguish an average story from a very good one. Two books I read recently for book clubs help us see the rewards of mastering this aspect of fiction writing.

Somebody Else’s Daughter by Elizabeth Brundage (Viking, 2008)

Somebody Else’s Daughter would have been a worthwhile read had Brundage not so skillfully interwoven contemporary issues into the story. Not that the issues of pornography, prostitution, battered women, infidelity, sexual deviancy, drug addiction and teenage sex can be separated from the characters that drive this story. It is the world they inhabit. It has brought them to Western Massachusetts where the teenagers, no less than the adults, have to answer for the adults’ past choices.

Brundage tells her story by switching perspective between half a dozen characters, while maneuvering through the twists and turns of a plot that includes a pit bull fight, a poker game that ends in violence, a man wrestling with himself on Yom Kippur (the Day of Repentance), and a killer hiding behind a veil of authority. Somehow it works. She creates suspense while driving towards a necessary conclusion.

My only quarrel with Somebody Else’s Daughter is how the initial 10-page section of the book is presented––unlabeled other than by the date “Summer, 1989”. Brundage (or her editor) ought to have been more forthright about what those pages represent. You’ll have to read the book to find out what I mean.

Defending Jacob by William Landay (Delacorte Press, 2012)

Nothing could be more contemporary than the murder of a teenager near his school. Published 10 months before Newtown, Connecticut, Defending Jacob goes right to the heart of the issue raised by the case of Adam Lanza–through what age and under what circumstances is the parent responsible for a young person’s behavior?

In Defending Jacob, assistant district attorney Andy Barber’s 14-year old son is accused of having murdered a boy who was bullying him. The crux of the story is the extent to which Barber and his wife are responsible for Jacob’s behavior. Laissez-faire parents beware.

In this story, the question of genetics also enters into the equation as Barber hid crucial information about his family background from his wife, thus raising the possibility that their son inherited a genetic disposition to violence. Is Barber to blame for his son’s behavior because he failed to tell his wife that his father, grandfather and great-grandfather all committed murders?

When injuries occurred to other children when Jacob was young, did Barber and his wife’s failure to intervene contribute to his problems as a teenager? Did they allow him to spend too much time alone in his room with his computer? Did their failure to monitor his Internet activity enable him to cross over from ideation to behavior?

Readers have to be careful with Defending Jacob for several reasons. Landay plays on our tendency to distrust lawyers and the legal system in matters of guilt and innocence, and by telling the story through Barber’s eyes, he makes us complicit in Barber’s failures as an objective observer and an impartial actor. Landay smartly puts up against Barber a politically motivated competitor in the D.A.’s office. Because we dislike this character so much, we are inclined to let Barber off the hook.

Finally, I have an axe to grind with how Landay plays gotcha with the reader at the end of the story. Without giving it away, my beef is that Landay lays a foundation for the teenager’s murder as a possible response to his having bullied Jacob. For most of the novel the focus is on whether Jacob is guilty. The final section of the novel has a different focus–the genetic disposition issue. Was Jacob a normal kid driven to defend himself or a psychotic, troubled kid who killed and would kill again? He can’t have it both ways. I guess he left it up to the reader to decide.

I recommend reading both novels. You’ll have fun discussing the characters and the way each other handles difficult issues.

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