Book Review and thoughts on having read, “Go Set a Watchman” by Harper Lee

Curiosity got the better of me when I heard Harper Lee, author of To Kill a Mockingbird published a second novel after more than 50 years.  Since To Kill a Mockingbird is a favorite among favorites, I knew I had to read this one too.

If you’re a fan of powerful American fiction, you’ll be disappointed with  this novel as I was until it hit me that every author has to cut their teeth on something.  I found it interesting that this novel was written in the ’50s and has only recently been released – perhaps for good reason.  My review of Go Set a Watchman follows:

I loved reading To Kill a Mockingbird and when I heard Harper Lee had another novel coming out, I knew I’d want to read it also. I didn’t expect it could possibly be as good as To Kill a Mocking Bird (TKAM) and after reading it, I discovered I was right. I also discovered something else; in the pre-release media for Go Set a Watchman I learned that the novel was written before Lee’s Pulitzer Prize winner TKAM was published. Though it was written in the mid-1950s, it was never published until now and probably for good reason.

Go Set a Watchman is set in the early ’50s and opens with 26 year old Jean Louise Finch nick named “Scout” returning to Maycomb, Alabama where she grew up. Maycomb is the small southern town where her aging father, Atticus still practices law. It is a town in transition during a period when civil rights were at the forefront of social justice.

For me, a good novel stems from a great story with precise, economical prose. TKAM is that kind of novel, Go Set a Watchman isn’t. Written as a sequel to TKAM, Lee probably knew it wasn’t ready for publication. It perhaps served as inspiration to write TKAM, since it included many of the same characters as well as a theme and setting with potential to captivate an audience of readers. However, Go Set a Watchman lacked a hard hitting story and just droned on as a platform for Lee to express her views on social justice through the character of Jean Louise Finch. The title, Go Set a Watchman came from a passage where Jean Louise struggles to understand the changing attitudes of Maycomb and the town’s people. In this passage, Jean Louise expresses a need for an internal watchman to steer her conscience.

Reading both Go Set a Watchman and TKAM as an exercise in comparative literary analysis would be a good exercise for both students and teachers of high school level literature. As an avid reader and fiction author, I was surprised to have struggled with the point of view in the narration. On several occasions in the course of two-three paragraphs, the point of view shifted from first person to third person. I found it difficult at times. In some instances the commentary in the narrative had the feel of a diatribe.

Additionally, I was surprised at the repetition of back story in the earlier chapters. I felt like the author was circling back to a different kind of story, perhaps the one that served as Lee’s inspiration for TKAM.

If this were the only novel ever published by Harper Lee, she would have never become a household name among American authors. Read Go Set a Watchman if you are curious or enjoy an opportunity to see that a Pulitzer Prize winning author is also capable of producing a dud.

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