Review: Sycamore Row by John Grisham

SycamoreRowI have mixed feelings about Sycamore Row by John Grisham. One one hand, I was invested in the outcome - I read it to the end and wanted to know how the story resolved - which is the joy of reading in a nutshell. On the other hand, I was disappointed many times with what felt like weak and convenient plotting and an overabundance of nostalgia for a previous novel that did nothing to move the story forward.

But let's start at the beginning. Wealthy but reclusive businessman Seth Hubbard hangs himself from a tree on a remote corner of his land after church one Sunday morning. A white man in the late stages of a rough cancer, Hubbard leaves specific instructions for local hotshot lawyer Jake Brigance (of A Time to Kill fame) to ferociously defend his last-minute handwritten will, a will that negates all earlier versions and cuts off everyone in his family to leave his fortune to his black caregiver. There is an immediate and vicious legal contest over the will. Was this handwritten document truly the 'will' of the dead man? Was Hubbard of sound mind? Was he under the influence of the therapies he was receiving to manage his pain and incapable of making rational choices about his estate? Did his caregiver manipulate the dying old man for personal gain?

Enter a cast of colorful local characters from A time to Kill, sprinkle in some nostalgic backstory, add a gaggle of out-of-town, big-city lawyers representing everyone who believes they should have a hand in Hubbard's fortune, a cantankerous judge who wants to control the process, a randomly-selected jury to add uncertainty in the outcome and you have the setting for an intriguing David and Goliath legal drama.

I am a fan of Grisham novels. He's on my list of go-to of authors, always a good read for an airplane ride, the kind of book I can get lost in. I especially liked the premise of Sycamore Row, the legal argument that need to be resolved. Grisham teases drama out of the legal process in a way that makes you feel like an insider to courtroom dynamics without crushing you in jargon and banal technicalities. He knows how to set up the tension of a trial (with its unknown outcome) and keep it so beautifully hidden you want to hang around and find out how things resolve. I was satisfied by the final resolution in this story. Very satisfied.

But, there were problems with the book.

I wish Grisham didn't violate the show-don't-tell rule so many times in this book. It was distracting. Part of the joy of reading mysteries is trying to figure them out as you go. Grisham wrote amazing scenes in Sycamore Row depicting action, showing us what's going on, letting us puzzle to work out what was happening, what the meaning of the scene was. But then he'd have scene after scene where he just spits the mystery of the moment out loud. Too many pages were used to tell us the implications of this characters actions or the possible scenarios spinning out of that action when he could have simply spent the time showing these things play out those consequences.

I also wish Grisham hadn't included characters and story lines that didn't move the story forward. For example, there were a dozen or antagonists early in the story (mostly lawyers in opposition of the main character) but most of them resolved themselves away half-way through without much fanfare or consequence. At the end, I found myself looking back at these characters and wondering why they had been there. The story would have been stronger with fewer antagonists and more time spent developing their depth or increasing the tension they introduce.

There was another example of a story line that could have been cut; in of A Time to Kill, Jake Briggance's house is burned down. In Sycamore Row, what happens to that house (a fight with his insurance company and an offer from a friend of a great deal on an equivalent home) is wrapped up too easily, too conveniently in a story line that didn't strengthen the main plot in any way. What happened to Jake's house could be have been a one-paragraph story note early in the book with no change in the new story's outcome.

Grisham also opens Sycamore Row with echoes of the threats Jake received from A Time to Kill (racially-charged threats, some fulfilled, of violence). But those threats never manifest. Nor does Grisham explain why not. Grisham also involves characters from A Time to Kill that don't add further the current story. My only conclusion of these plot challenges is that Girsham had mixed motives for writing this story. He had a compelling legal drama to write, set in a favored town and featuring a favored character. But he also was trying to write things into the story to make fans of A Time to kill happy. These two motivations pulled awkwardly at each other throughout the book. Strip them away and Sycamore Row is Grisham at his best.

I enjoyed the story and if you're a Grisham fan or a fan of the book A Time to Kill, I recommend you read Sycamore Row. But wish Grisham could have taken time to come back and revise it with a more dispassionate eye.

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