|Andy Barber, his wife Laurie, and their fourteen-year-old son Jacob lead an ideal life in suburban Newton, Massachusetts. Barber has been an assistant District Attorney for over twenty years and is respected for his sound judgment and even temperament. Suddenly their perfect world is shattered. Ben Rifkin, a classmate of Jacob's at the local middle school has been stabbed to death in a wooded park on his way to school.
Although there are several assistant district attorneys, Barber usually takes charge of the high profile cases as he is well respected, so he is initially put in charge of the case. He wants to show the community that he is interested in quickly solving the case to reassure other parents of their children’s safety as well as to help bring closure for Ben's parents. His unselfish motives backfire on him when it becomes clear that his own son Jacob is a suspect.
When Andy reveals to his wife a long held secret about his own family background, the integrity of their marriage and their relationship with their son undergoes a dramatic change. They are forced to consider possible negligence in their child rearing techniques as well as innate behavior of their son which they had previously dismissed as phases of child development where unacceptable behavior reared its ugly head, but would eventually be discarded as he learned how to function in society.
Defending Jacobis a novel that deserves to be read for multiple reasons. The nature versus nurture controversy plays a significant role in the story. This subject provides fodder for psychologists, psychiatrists, and laymen alike as to motivation for antisocial behavior. There are some scenes in which Jacob and his parents meet with a psychiatrist who explains the latest theories on personality disorders. Many lively book club discussions could arise from an examination of the Barber household.
Another facet of the narrative is the extensive detail of courtroom procedure and protocol. The author is a law school graduate and a former district attorney so he know of which he speaks. Many laymen know the courtroom through television series which tend to skim over the details in order to fit the time constraints. As a corollary, Landay teaches his audience a little about conversations on social network on the internet. For parents of teenagers some of the author's wisdom could be invaluable.
Both Andy and Laurie are like many parents somewhat in awe that this being that they have created has morphed from a tiny helpless baby into a gawky teenager with seemingly very limited communication skills. How much of what they did or failed to do resulted in the product that now is accused of a horrific crime? More to the point, how far are they willing to go for their son? Do societal constraints trump parental obligation to protect one's child?
In addition to teaching correct courtroom procedure, Landay also points out some flaws in the system. Most notably he remarks through Andy's voice that lawyers and judges spend years learning the law and how it should work only to turn the most important part of it over to a dozen amateurs, I.e., the jury.
Landay employs an interesting method of showing the interplay between Andy Barber and the prosecutor on the case. The typeset is different and appears to be Andy's imagined dialogue between himself and the prosecutor. Since the two men have some history this dialogue provides insight into the minds of both men.
What is perhaps most striking about Defending Jacob is how completely one event can transform the lives of three members of a family. The contrast in the thought processes of Andy and Laurie before the murder and after it demonstrate how profoundly one event, albeit a horrific one can transform the people closest to it.