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Book Review: Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee (4/5)

29 Dec

After all of the press around this book, I was reluctant to read it. I was in no rush, but I did put it on my TBR. It was out of curiosity, really. I read ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ while I was in 9th grade and it was enjoyable but wasn’t my favorite book from school or one I’ve re-read for any reason. It had a good story and made for a good study, that was all. After hearing the controversy (catch up with the NY Times if needed), I was curious and angry, not excited. But armed with an audiobook and holiday baking to do, I dove in and was pleasantly surprised.

Cover image via Goodreads

Cover image via Goodreads

Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee

Summary from Goodreads:

Maycomb, Alabama. Twenty-six-year-old Jean Louise Finch–“Scout”–returns home from New York City to visit her aging father, Atticus. Set against the backdrop of the civil rights tensions and political turmoil that were transforming the South, Jean Louise’s homecoming turns bittersweet when she learns disturbing truths about her close-knit family, the town and the people dearest to her. Memories from her childhood flood back, and her values and assumptions are thrown into doubt. Featuring many of the iconic characters from To Kill a Mockingbird, Go Set a Watchman perfectly captures a young woman, and a world, in a painful yet necessary transition out of the illusions of the past–a journey that can be guided only by one’s conscience.

I went in expecting nothing. Honestly, that might be why I liked it as much as I did. It sounds terrible, but going in with really low expectations helped me like this book. I thought it would be a much rougher first draft and I fond the book to be reasonably well polished. It makes sense that she probably edited it a bit before taking a debut novel to an editor. I guess the press made me expect the worst. I thought the flashbacks were a little often and a little long which I feel a good editor would have pared down. A lot of them didn’t relate to the story being told, either. I’m thinking of the story of the kids playing ‘Revival’ and being caught by the priest. It illustrated a character that didn’t play a role in the main action so why was it there? To make the book longer and sell it for more. I also thought the book lacked a solid plot. The story was Scout’s journey to accept the town she grew up in but the process was confusing to me and a lot of things that happened weren’t relevant to that journey. It needed some serious editing.

I’m not sure how credible I think the characters are. Alabama during segregation is very different from where I live or have ever visited. I can’t imagine the tensions going on in the town. To me, Jean Louise seemed like the sanest person in a world of quiet bigots. They don’t want anything to change and refuse to come around to the northern way of thinking. They’re stubborn as mules and in the end, Jean Louise accepts what they say. She doesn’t agree, but she accepts it and that was hard to read as a fan of To Kill a Mockingbird. That Atticus is even listening to a pro-segregation speech is hard to listen to. We have to consider that these characters are different from the ones we grew up loving. Editing changed Atticus so he’s no longer the same person.

Scout was a great character. As a northerner in 2015, I related to her mentality more than the other characters. Being inside her head and hearing her internal thoughts helped me feel connected to her. Hank and Aunt Alexandra were great, too, because they were vivid and well described.

Scout reacted much the same way I do when I encounter something that goes against my idea of equality. I get angry! I don’t understand why some people believe others are inherently better and why they’re not open to hearing a different opinion. I saw a lot of myself in Scout and I really liked reading about her reactions to her hometown. She grew up in that environment and it must have been startling to see how much it had changed because of national decisions.

Harper Lee Image via Biography

Harper Lee
Image via Biography

I liked the parts with Aunt Alexandra. She was a great female figure to have opposite Atticus. She had a great attitude and I liked how strong she was despite what had happened with her husband. The descriptions of her corset and her gossip with the local ladies had me smiling whenever she showed up in the narrative.

Listening to Uncle Jack and Atticus defend segregation was excruciating. The balance they were looking for in their lives being set into turmoil by human rights seemed like a dumb thing to complain about and seeing Scout come to accept that was hard. I can’t imagine the shock to her memories and her belief in her father to hear those things when she came home. It wasn’t what I wanted to hear from the book and I think it’s what gave it so much bad press. It’s too easy to think of Atticus in this book as the same lawyer in To Kill a Mockingbird and it makes it worse. I understand why so many readers were disappointed.

I was skeptical of Reese Whitherspoon as the narrator for this audiobook. I didn’t realize she was from New Orleans and would be able to do the voice and characters so well. I forgot it was her half the time I was listening. She brought a lot of her acting talent to the job and her inflection was incredible. I really recommend the audiobook.

Lee wanted to write a book about race and this sure fills that role. I strongly think that To Kill a Mockingbird did it so much better that they’re incomparable. Accepting the hatred and inability to cope with change she sees at home is not the ending I wanted as a reader. It’s not the ending Scout’s story deserved. It says something about race for sure, but not something I wanted to hear.

Writer’s Takeaway: Flashbacks! That was the editing need that stuck out the most to me. Flashbacks can serve a purpose but I felt a lot of Lee’s didn’t in this story. They made me love Scout and miss Jem, but didn’t develop the story. It’s a good reminder to use them sparingly if at all.

I enjoyed it more than I thought, but I wish I’d been able to go in with higher expectations. Four out of Five stars.

Until next time, write on.

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Review: GO SET A WATCHMAN by Harper Lee | What’s Not Wrong
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