Nineteen Minutes


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Book Review

Nineteen Minutes by Jodi Picoult has been reviewed by Focus on the Family’s marriage and parenting magazine.

Plot Summary

Nineteen minutes are all it takes to turn the small town of Sterling upside down. Peter Houghton enters Sterling High and goes on a killing spree that leaves 10 dead and many others wounded — both physically and emotionally. One of those students is Josie Cormier, the daughter of district judge Alex Cormier, who is a single mother. Josie and Peter have known each other since childhood and were once best friends.

Peter’s parents, Lacy and Lewis, are also blindsided by the news. How could their sensitive, creative son have committed this horrifying crime? What makes a child a killer?

Lacy, a midwife, befriends Alex while she is pregnant with Josie. The two women are close friends for many years until Alex catches Peter showing Josie one of Lewis’ unloaded hunting rifles. Frightened at what could have happened, Alex does her best to keep Josie out of Peter’s life.

Although Peter and Josie are forbidden to play together outside of school, they remain friends in the classroom. Josie stands up for Peter when he is bullied and teased. For Peter, bullying is a daily fact of life that begins in kindergarten and only worsens when he starts wearing glasses. Peter is also late entering puberty, and the size difference between him and his classmates makes him even more of a target for abuse in middle and high school. As he grows older, many jokes center around his sexual orientation, and Peter begins to worry that he is gay (although later in the book, it is revealed that he is not).

Joey, Peter’s older brother, is handsome, talented and well-liked by his peers and adults. Instead of using his social status to protect Peter, Joey is one of the principal instigators of the bullying. Peter retreats more frequently into his safe places — hunting with his father and programming computer games.

Several incidents cement the barrier between Peter and Josie. When Dolores Keating gets her period in class, Peter is the first to notice — and point it out to the other students. For a while, he enjoys the popularity his discovery brings him. But when students start piling tampons on Dolores’ desk, Peter refuses to participate. Josie isn’t involved either. Later that day, she says that she can’t hang out with Peter anymore — although she will try to use her position in the popular crowd to stop people from bullying him.

The gap between Peter and Josie grows wider, but Peter continues to hope that she’ll become friends with him again. They enjoy a brief friendship outside of school when they both work at a photocopy shop, but when Peter makes a graph charting the popularity of different students and presents it in math class, Josie is horrified at being labeled as a bridge — someone who can hang out with people at all social levels. That day, Josie starts going out with Matt — one of the popular kids who’s known for his cruelty to those on the bottom rung of the social ladder. She cuts all ties with Peter.

Peter’s next contact with Josie is when the two of them are stranded in a broken elevator. They play “Truth or Dare” to pass the time before they’re rescued. Josie admits that Matt hits her. She and Peter kiss briefly. When they are finally rescued, Peter hurries home to find his parents crying in the dark. He assumes they were worried about him and rushes to assure them he is OK. But he learns that Joey has just been struck and killed by a drunk driver. His family dissolves into grief, and Peter retreats even deeper inside himself.

Much later, Peter admits to his mother that he’s interested in a girl. Lacy encourages him to tell the girl how he feels. But the email Peter sends to Josie is intercepted by Courtney Ignatio — the alpha female at Sterling High School — who sends it to her friend Drew with instructions to spam it out to the entire student body. Then Courtney lies to Peter and tells him that Josie really likes him but wants to make sure Peter likes her back before she dumps Matt. Because of this encouragement, Peter invites Josie to sit with him at lunch, but is pantsed (pants and underwear are pulled down) by Matt. Both Josie and Peter are mortified.

The morning Peter goes on the shooting spree, he accidentally opens a copy of his email to Josie on his computer. Despite evidence that he planned the shooting in advance, Jordan McAfee, Peter’s lawyer, argues that Peter suffers from PTSD, that the email sent Peter into a dissociative state and that Peter wasn’t aware of his own actions when he stormed the school that morning, going from one bullying-incident scene to another, targeting the jocks and popular kids but shooting others as well.

Several of Josie’s friends are among the dead and wounded, including Matt and Courtney. While Peter waits in jail for the trial to begin, Alex slowly grows closer to her emotionally distraught daughter and also begins to date Patrick Ducharme, a detective with the Sterling police.

At the end of the trial, Jordan calls on Josie to testify. Initially, Josie doesn’t remember anything about the shooting. But her memory comes back. When Peter cornered Josie and Matt in the locker room, a gun fell out of his bag onto the floor. Josie grabbed it and pointed it at Peter. Matt urged her to shoot him, cursing her slowness. Josie turned the gun and shot Matt in the stomach instead. Peter shot Matt in the head so that her shot wouldn’t be the one that killed him.

Peter is convicted of first-degree murder in all but two counts — the jury finds that Matt and Courtney had provoked him, so their deaths are considered second-degree murder. Josie pleads guilty to manslaughter and is sentenced to five years in jail.

A month after he is convicted, Peter commits suicide. Lacy and Lewis try to patch their broken lives. Sterling High is refurbished, and a tribute to the fallen students is created in the newly constructed atrium. Alex regularly visits Josie in jail, resigns her position as a judge and becomes a defense lawyer again. She is pregnant with Patrick’s child.

Christian Beliefs

There is a Bible-study club. Matt’s parents try to make him go to church, but he refuses. The pastor at his funeral reads a verse from the Beatitudes. He says that God cares for, comforts and heals mourners and mentions that Matt found peace in death. Wooden crosses are used as temporary memorials for the slain. Some say that the shooting is God’s will.

In jail, Peter attends church to have time away from his cell. He believes he is going to hell. Jesus is compared to a freebie pass that will excuse you from anything you’ve done. Peter has a cellmate named Satan. Peter wonders if his fish thinks of him like he [Peter] thinks of God. In an attempt to free his fish, he accidentally kills it.

Other Belief Systems

Lacy believes in karma and aliens.

Authority Roles

Before the shooting, Alex is a loving but distant parent who prioritizes her job above her daughter. While she makes a brief effort to spend more time with Josie, she quickly returns to her normal routine. Josie feels pressured by Alex to be perfect in every area of her life. While Alex enforces a strict midnight curfew and tells Josie to use a condom every time she has sex, she also tacitly condones Josie’s sexual relationship with Matt and is unaware of Matt’s abuse and Josie’s miscarriage. After the shooting, Alex’s relationship with Josie is fraught with tension. Alex tries to show Josie that she is more important than her job, but their relationship doesn’t begin to improve until Alex removes herself from the case. The two spend time talking and cooking together. Alex continues to show her support for Josie after her confession.

Lacy is the kind of mother who leaves an encouraging note for Peter beside his cereal bowl every morning and packs him a lunch every day. But she doesn’t know that Joey bullies him, and she punishes Peter for not standing up for himself at school. Her attempts to be loving and supportive often backfire. She buys Peter a Superman binder that prompts classmates to tease him, and her advice to tell Josie about his feelings ends in Peter’s humiliation. After finding a packet of heroin while cleaning Joey’s room, Lacy is afraid to look too hard in Peter’s room.

Lewis is not as close to Peter as Lacy, although he teaches him how to hunt. Lacy and Lewis don’t monitor Peter’s computer use and miss several clues that he might be planning something violent. After the shooting, Lacy finds bomb-making materials in Peter’s closet, and she and Lewis admit to trusting Peter too much. They blame themselves for their son’s actions and question which of their parenting decisions caused Peter to lash out so violently. Both Lacy and Lewis apologize to Peter in jail.

Alex’s mother died of breast cancer when she was 5, and she was raised by her father. He wasn’t affectionate, and she used academics to get his attention. Like her father, Alex is more at home in a courtroom than in her own home with her child.

Josie’s father was a married man who forced Alex to choose between losing him or terminating the pregnancy. When Josie contacts him, he is in the process of running in an election. He assumes that she is blackmailing him and tries to buy her silence when all she wants to do is talk to him.

A teacher favors cheerleaders, giving them good grades even if they don’t deserve them. Throughout Peter’s school career, teachers infrequently intervene to stop bullying, but their involvement often intensifies the abuse. The Sterling High gym teacher admits to being aware of the locker room violence but believes that it’s all part of growing up.

Profanity & Violence

Profanity includes the following: a–, a–hole, b–tard, b–ch, bulls—, d–n, d–k, fag, the f-word, h—, p—, pr–k, s—. Misuses of God’s name are sometimes paired with d–n. Jesus’ name is also misused. Students call Peter a homo and a queer. Other coarse names for homosexuals and lesbians are used. Alex spells swear words with math manipulatives on open school night.

The crime scene, described by Patrick Ducharme, is gruesome. Peter wounds and kills students and teachers. He shoots people in the leg, in the face and in the torso. People bleed while their friends apply pressure to gaping wounds so large that their intestines are spilling out. Josie shoots Matt in the stomach, and blood comes out of his mouth before Peter shoots him in the head. Patrick slips in pools of blood, and blood spatters are on the walls. A wounded teen falls out of a second story window.

Peter sets off a bomb in Matt’s car. Patrick and Alex recall other violent cases. In one, a man tied himself to the train tracks. His head and limbs were severed. In others, battered women kill their sleeping husbands. One woman stabs her husband 46 times. Another woman slices off her husband’s penis.

Peter and other students at Sterling are the victims of daily bullying that begins in elementary school and continues through high school. In kindergarten, Peter’s lunchbox is repeatedly stolen and thrown out the bus window. Students throw spitballs at sleeping kids, shooting the wads of soggy paper into their hair and sometimes into their mouths. Students are hung on hooks from their underwear and given wedgies. Chairs are pulled out from beneath them, they’re tripped on the stairs, and their heads are shoved into toilets. Once, Peter is beaten up so badly on the way home that he needs stitches. He is the victim of online harassment. He is pushed, teased and called names. Peter’s brother, Joey, says Peter is adopted and that his mom was a crack whore. Peter creates a video game where players move through a school killing athletes and popular kids.

The mother of a slain child uses a gun to commit suicide. When Drew lies about bullying Peter, Patrick grabs his throat. Matt hits Josie, pins her against a wall, briefly cuts off her airway and grabs her so hard he leaves bruises. He knocks out a boy who puts his hand on Josie’s shoulder at a party. Josie imagines Matt decomposing.

A man in the cell next to Peter calls himself Carnivore and says he is accused of raping and stabbing a waitress. A maimed chick is pecked to death while the class watches. Josie beats up a student who bullies Peter.

Sexual Content

Matt and Josie are sexually active, and the book gives several detailed accounts of their sessions, which include caressing, groping and manual stimulation before intercourse. After the first painful experience, Josie finds their routine pleasant, although it leaves her feeling empty. Matt is careful to use a condom. As their relationship progresses, Matt becomes increasingly possessive, manipulative and abusive. When Josie wants to stay at a party but Matt wants to leave, he grabs her so hard he leaves bruises. He remarks that it would be easy for him to kill her and puts pressure on her windpipe so that she can’t breathe.

When Josie acts friendly with a boy at a party, Matt calls Josie a slut and a whore; he drives recklessly with her in the vehicle. He threatens to commit suicide when Josie tries to break up with him. He hits her, causing her to lose her balance and injure her ankle. Matt blames his behavior on Josie’s beauty and claims that he loves her and doesn’t want to share her. Matt also pressures Josie to have sex without a condom. At first, he respects her wishes, but one night, he refuses to use a condom. Josie tries to get away but is unable to escape, and his movements are so violent that Josie gets carpet burns. Josie becomes pregnant from this union, but miscarries.

Peter worries that he might be gay. Even when he finally makes a friend, he keeps him at a distance because he worries that he might like him. He also worries that he might have an erection while showering with the guys in the locker room. He makes a one-time visit to the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Club. He also goes to a gay bar, where he is almost picked up by an unscrupulous man named Kurt. Mr. McCabe, Peter’s math teacher (who is gay), comes to his rescue and drives him home. Male characters’ pubic regions are described in detail.

A character wonders what it would be like to kiss a boy with braces. Names of girls who perform oral sex are written on the bathroom walls. Peter hacks into his boss’s computer and finds pornographic images that include bestiality. Alex turns down a man she is on a blind date with, when he starts making lewd comments about her. Teens make sexually explicit jokes and insults. High school students engage in casual sexual encounters. Josie and her friends watch unrated teen sex movies. Teen boys find older women attractive. Girls mock a classmate’s breasts. They also wear belly shirts and create dances to provocative songs.

Josie recalls peeing on the lawn in second grade with her classmate Natalie Zlenko, who now openly identifies as a lesbian. Jordan remembers getting an erection while climbing a rope in gym class.

Peter imagines the guards laughing at him every time he has to use the bathroom. Peter’s cellmate draws a picture of the (male) corrections officers having sex.

Patrick Ducharme and Alex start dating and quickly begin a sexual relationship. Alex becomes pregnant with his baby.

Drew makes a joke about his body being intelligently designed.

Discussion Topics


Additional Comments

Eating Disorders: Josie and her girlfriends eat very little because of the peer pressure to stay thin, often limiting themselves to a banana and water for lunch. Anyone who eats more is labeled a whale or bulimic. Matt actively pressures Josie not to eat. He eats her food himself or gives it to his friends. When Josie orders unhealthy food, her friends make rude comments about her choice. She lies to Alex about eating breakfast.

Suicide: The novel begins with a suicide note that appears to be from Josie’s diary, although she is still alive at the end of the book. Josie keeps a bag of pilfered pills hidden in her room. She has no clear plan for using them. After the shooting, Josie attempts to commit suicide, but flushes the pills down the toilet. After Josie breaks up with Matt, he threatens to commit suicide to convince her to come back. The mother of a slain student commits suicide using a gun. In jail, Peter is considered a suicide risk. A month after the trial, he commits suicide by suffocating himself.

Abortion: At first, Alex plans to abort her baby because the father, Logan Rourke (her law professor), wants nothing to do with the child. Although Alex is ultimately unwilling to choose abortion, both she and Lacy are pro-abortion. Lacy meets Lewis at a pro-abortion rally. When Josie suspects she is pregnant, she researches different abortifacients online, but miscarries before using any of them.

Drug and Alcohol Abuse: A student gets drunk and urinates in the open window of the principal’s car. Students use and deal drugs. After Joey’s death, Lacy finds a package of heroin in his room. Teens get drunk at parties. The leader of the Bible-study club is also a cocaine dealer.

Lying: A grief counselor tells each of the families of the slain that their child died first. Peter lies to his parents about his athletic feats. Josie lies to Alex about getting a job when she is really going to visit Matt’s grave. She also lies to her biological father about her real name. Peter tells Lewis that he’s doing an extra-credit science project when he is isolating ingredients for a bomb. When buying clothes for Peter’s trial, Lacy tells the saleswoman that he’s going to Harvard.

Stealing: Peter steals handguns from a neighbor. Josie steals pills from her mother.

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Book reviews cover the content, themes and worldviews of fiction books, not their literary merit, and equip parents to decide whether a book is appropriate for their children. The inclusion of a book’s review does not constitute an endorsement by Focus on the Family.

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