Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Go Set A Watchman: Let’s talk about this

Like many of the fine folks who contribute to this blog, I’m from Alabama. And, therefore, I have a soft spot for Harper Lee and To Kill A Mockingbird. You can imagine the range of emotions I felt when I learned that she had a “new” book coming out this year ... but the controversy surrounding it made me a little sick to my stomach. I can think of few things worse than someone taking advantage of an author’s dementia for monetary gain. An article from The Onion summed up my feelings perfectly.

But, I had to read it. I had to. In October, I borrowed my brother’s copy of Go Set A Watchman (her caretaker gets no money from me!) and finally finished it over Thanksgiving.

This book is no To Kill a Mockingbird. I don’t think I would have finished it if it hadn’t been the Harper Lee book. It didn’t have the same driving plot, intensity, or life lessons.

However, there is some great writing in the book. Parts are clever and felt very real. The south is hot and muggy. Ice cream on a hot day is delicious and can take you back to memories of your childhood. Games you played as kids had hidden meaning you might not have realized at the time. She says all of that better than I just did.

I was perhaps most enraptured with the scene where Scout’s aunt throws a fancy party. Scout/Jean Louise would come in and out of conversations, hearing only bits and pieces of them as she was simultaneously frustrated with her aunt and the party in general. The bits of conversations were spot on, and the scene perfectly put people in certain groups that they would be in at a party.

I also have to admit that this book felt slightly like The Help in the way the protagonist was the fish out of water in the southern town – and especially at that party – because of her life, her ambitions, and her marital status. It irked me that the comparison was so easy to make, and I think it's because this book just doesn't have the plot it needs to feel unique or to be about more than a girl coming home for a visit and feeling like everyone is the absolute worst.

And, let’s talk about one thing that struck me throughout: At times, this book felt like it was trying to be a young adult novel or a romantic novel. Scout and Henry (who is her longtime boyfriend at this point) talk a great deal about their relationship, and she gives him advice on women quite a bit. I also didn’t expect to learn the story of Scout getting her period. In other words, there were scenes in here I didn't expect. Sometimes I felt like I was reading a Sweet Valley High book, Are you there God? It’s Me, Margaret, or a new version of Catcher in the Rye (because Scout sure seemed to feel like her town was full of phonies).

There is one good point at the end about the importance of not tying your conscience to someone else's conscience (or at least your perception of it). Also, in a related note, Atticus wasn't the evil character I feared he would be after hearing rumors about this book. He was definitely not perfect, but he wasn't the raging racist I expected; he was really just more of a pragmatist than the prophetic voice we met in Mockingbird. Still, it's disappointing. But, also, he's not real, so it's not worth getting actually upset about (I'm talking to you, WORLD AT LARGE).

I want to talk about this book. What did you think? Was the ending satisfying? Did you end up hating Atticus? What did you like? What didn’t you like? What did you learn?

Who else has read this book and wants to talk about this with me?


  1. I *just* finished this book for my book club - I might not have read it otherwise for all the same reasons. Probably because I'd heard all the rage about Atticus, I wasn't as disappointed as I expected to be - I agree that in this book he's more a real human of the era, as opposed to the (idealized?) paragon of morality in /Mockingbird/. So in a way, I guess we as readers have the same experience Scout did: this Atticus that we've idealized gets dragged down from his pedestal by his humanity. And hearing about the civil rights movement and Southern post-Reconstruction history from that perspective was one I hadn't heard in such detail before.

    I'm *so* with you on the writing too. You can see a lot of promise in it, but in some places - like, when Uncle Jack goes on a monologue - even though he was making some interesting points, I just thought "Harper Lee's editor was brilliant, asking her to go back and rewrite this." And the romance part was interesting occasionally but generally kind of eh.

    To be totally honest, I got really mad at the book as soon as I found out that Jem was dead. Harsh, Harper. Harsh.

    1. Don't get me started on the Jem thing! I think I said, "WHAT?" out loud when they first mentioned that he was dead. Good point about we have the same experience Scout had -- Atticus was part of my "childhood" so to say, and seeing him as imperfect was not pleasant.

      I think the big conclusion is that Harper Lee is a talented writer, and she had a great editor to nurture her gift and guide her in the late 1950s.

  2. I also would not have finished this book if it weren't Harper Lee. I hated how it was marketed as a prequel to Mockingbird when it so clearly wasn't meant as such.

    To me, the saddest part about Atticus was that he sounds a lot like some people I know in Alabama today.

    But yes, I second your "he is not real, do not get angry over this" sentiment. People just need to stop naming their children "Atticus." For numerous reasons.

  3. Such a great review of the book! I did not have high expectations but very curious about the book. I struggled through it and was so disappointed about Jem. The worst part for me was not liking Scout. I just really wanted to like her and couldn't connect with her character.