On Peter Houghton's first day of kindergarten, he watched helplessly as an older boy ripped his lunch box out of his hands and threw it out the window. From that day on, his life was a series of humiliations, from having his pants pulled down in the cafeteria, to being called a freak at every turn. But can endless bullying justify murder? As Picoult attempts to answer this question, she shows us all sides of the equation, from the ruthless jock who loses his ability to speak after being shot in the head, to the mother who both blames and pities herself for producing what most would call a monster. Surrounding Peter's story is that of Josie Cormier, a former friend whose acceptance into the popular crowd hangs on a string that makes it impossible for her to reconcile her beliefs with her actions.
At times, Nineteen Minutes can seem tediously stereotypical-- jocks versus nerds, parent versus child, teacher versus student. Part of Picoult's gift is showing us the subtleties of these common dynamics, and the startling effects they often have on the moral landscape. As Peter's mother says at the end of this spellbinding novel, "Everyone would remember Peter for nineteen minutes of his life, but what about the other nine million?"