Reviews provided by Syndetics
Library Journal Review
As every reader knows, Lee's second novel, from which her iconic To Kill a Mockingbird was spun 55 years ago, has just been published by Harper with considerable excitement and some still-shifting uncertainty, as reported by the New York Times, about how the manuscript was rediscovered. Lee's original work has feisty 26-year-old Jean Louise Finch, nicknamed Scout as a child and the basis for Mockingbird's beloved heroine, returning home from New York to Maycomb Junction, AL, post-Brown v. Board of Education and encountering strongly resistant states'-rights, anti-integrationist forces that include boyfriend Henry and, significantly, her father, Atticus Finch, Mockingbird's moral center. Readers shocked by that revelation must remember that there are now two -Atticus Finches; the work in hand is not a sequel but served as source material for Lee's eventual Pulitzer Prize winner, with such reworked characters a natural part of the writing and editing processes. Even if one can imagine that the seeds of the older -Atticus are there in the younger Atticus-and that's possible-these are different characters and different books. More significantly, the current work stands as you-are-there documentation of a specific time and place, contextualizing both Mockingbird and the very beginnings of the civil rights movement, and for that reason alone it's invaluable and recommended reading. -Mockingbird's Atticus was right for 1960, just after the Little Rock integration crisis, with his defense of a wrongly accused African American making him a moral beacon and a lesson for all. Yet for many readers, even those who love and admire Mockingbird, it also smacked of white self-congratulation, and the current book is a rawer, more authentic representation of Southern sentiment at a tumultuous time, years removed from the solidly (and safely) segregationist era of Mockingbird. If Watchman is occasionally digressive or a bit much of a lecture, it's good enough to make one wish that Lee had written a dozen works. It's also a breathtaking read that will have the reader actively engaged and arguing with every character, including Jean Louise. In the end, despite Jean Louise's powerful articulation that the court had to rule as it did, that "we [whites] deserve everything we've gotten from the NAACP," and that Negroes (as the novel says) will rise and should rise, it's unsettling and, yes, disappointing that the confrontation between Jean Louise and Atticus is ultimately an engineered effort to make her stand up for herself and stop worshipping her father. That's not quite believable, and what's right gets a little lost in states' rights, which Jean Louise herself supports. At least she doesn't run back to New York, but did she really win her argument? The ugly things she hears around her are still being said today. VERDICT -Disturbing, important, and not to be compared with -Mockingbird; this book is its own signal work.-Barbara Hoffert, Library Journal © Copyright 2015. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
Publishers Weekly Review
The editor who rejected Lee's first effort had the right idea. The novel the world has been waiting for is clearly the work of a novice, with poor characterization (how did the beloved Scout grow up to be such a preachy bore, even as she serves as the book's moral compass?), lengthy exposition, and ultimately not much story, unless you consider Scout thinking she's pregnant because she was French-kissed or her losing her falsies at the school dance compelling. The book opens in the 1950s with Jean Louise, a grown-up 26-year-old Scout, returning to Maycomb from New York, where she's been living as an independent woman. Jean Louise is there to see Atticus, now in his seventies and debilitated by arthritis. She arrives in a town bristling from the NAACP's actions to desegregate the schools. Her aunt Zandra, the classic Southern gentlewoman, berates Jean Louise for wearing slacks and for considering her longtime friend and Atticus protégé Henry Clinton as a potential husband-Zandra dubs him trash. But the crux of the book is that Atticus and Henry are racist, as is everyone else in Jean Louise's old life (even her childhood caretaker, Calpurnia, sees the white folks as the enemy). The presentation of the South pushing back against the dictates of the Federal government, utilizing characters from a book that was about justice prevailing in the South through the efforts of an unambiguous hero, is a worthy endeavor. Lee just doesn't do the job with any aplomb. The theme of the book is basically about not being able to go home again, as Jean Louise sums it up in her confrontation with Atticus: "there's no place for me anymore in Maycomb, and I'll never be entirely at home anywhere else." As a picture of the desegregating South, the novel is interesting but heavy-handed, with harsh language and rough sentiments: "Do you want them in our world?" Atticus asks his daughter. The temptation to publish another Lee novel was undoubtedly great, but it's a little like finding out there's no Santa Claus. © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
Jean Louise Finch is back home in Maycomb, Alabama, for a visit, after living in New York City just long enough to gain a new perspective on her past and her future. At 26, she is self-deprecating, impulsive, argumentative, sensitive, and conflicted. Called Scout as a motherless girl, she was a howling tomboy, juvenile desperado, hell-raiser extraordinary. She still has a cowlick, and her corseted Aunt Alexandra still fusses about her unladylike clothes and manners. Jean Louise has always worshipped her lawyer father, Atticus; loved and trusted their African American housekeeper, Calpurnia; and utterly relied on her older brother, Jem.So iconic are Harper Lee's characters, Go Set a Watchman sure seems like a sequel to her Pulitzer Prize-winning, quintessential American tale, To Kill a Mockingbird (1960). But Lee wrote this very different novel before she wrote the book that brought her lifelong fame and turned her hometown, Monroeville, Alabama, into a tourist attraction. To Kill a Mockingbird its renown amplified by the Academy Award-winning film version that forever fused Lee's hero, Atticus Finch, with Gregory Peck, was the writer's only published book for 55 years. Heated speculation about how and why this book was finally released propelled a high tide of media coverage, a deluge of preorders, and readers lined up outside bookstores. It's exciting to be part of such a mighty surge of passionate curiosity about a book, and this is only the beginning. The sharp and disquieting contrast between the two novels, especially between the two variations on Atticus, will fuel discussions and dissertations for years to come. Jem has died young and suddenly, as their mother did. Atticus, at 72, is struggling with rheumatoid arthritis. Jem and Scout's childhood friend, Henry, a character new to readers, is now a lawyer working with Atticus, and anxious for Jean Louise to finally say yes to his repeated marriage proposals. She and Henry share a deep and precious history, but she just doesn't love him the way she should. She also doesn't know if she can move back to Maycomb and its dense web of gossiping kin and neighbors, and she recoils at the very idea of marriage. She has always been appalled by the circumscribed lives the women live there, and wonders if loving your man means losing your own identity. Her quandary over Henry is complicated by a fatal car accident in which Calpurnia's favorite grandson accidentally kills a white man. When Atticus takes the case, his daughter is proud, remembering how, years ago, he accomplished what was never before or after done in Maycomb County: he won an acquittal for a colored boy on a rape charge. But certain nauseating disclosures, precipitated by her finding a pamphlet titled The Black Plague, reveal the poisonous truth about her father's attitude toward his African American neighbors, which ranges from vile white supremacist delusions to outrage over the NAACP's calling for the seating of black jurors. Jean Louise is devastated by her father's racism. She feels betrayed right down to the marrow in her bones, and begins questioning everything about her past. Lee wrote Go Set a Watchman soon after the landmark 1954 Supreme Court case, Brown v. Board of Education, which put an end to segregated public schools, a decision that ignited rage and fear among whites and catalyzed the civil rights movement. By revealing the insidious prejudice of a man as seemingly upright as Atticus, Lee uncloaks the malignant hatred, anger, and fear that have made the South a land of terror for African Americans, a legacy exposed yet again in recent weeks with the church shooting in Charleston, South Carolina, followed by the long overdue removal of the Confederate flag from the grounds of the state capital. Lee addresses another volatile topic, sexism, primarily in flashbacks to Jean Louise's reluctant and utterly unprepared passage into young womanhood. Scout is shocked by menstruation and dangerously confused about sex and pregnancy, and her one attempt to dress up results in a hilarious falsies mishap. These are the most richly imagined and crisply realized sections in the novel. The incisive editor who worked with Lee on the manuscript encouraged her to rewrite the novel, setting it in the mid-1930s, when Scout was eight and the old order, which strictly defined race relations, was still in place. Lee worked intensely for two years on what became To Kill a Mockingbird, and set this novel aside.Though Lee's prose is frequently stilted in Go Set a Watchman, her transitions awkward, her descents into exposition bumpy, this is a daring, raw, intimate, and incendiary social exposé. A story, perhaps, far too alienating, too candid, and too hot to handle fresh from the typewriter, during that more buttoned-up era. Given the systematic racist invective unleashed during the two terms of our first African American president, and the increasingly visible police violence against African Americans, now truly is the time for Harper Lee's unsettling confrontation with racism, our national malady.Jean Louise suffers through a church service in which the minister reads from Isiah: For thus hath the Lord said unto me, / Go, set a watchman, let him declare what he seeth. Later she thinks, I need a watchman to lead me around and declare what he seeth every hour on the hour. I need a watchman to tell me this is what a man says but this is what he means . . . Let Harper Lee be our watchman.--Seaman, Donna Copyright 2015 Booklist
Kirkus Book Review
The long-awaited, much-discussed sequel that might have been a prequeland that makes tolerably good company for its classic predecessor. It's not To Kill a Mockingbird, and it too often reads like a first draft, but Lee's story nonetheless has weight and gravity. Scoutthat is, Miss Jean Louise Finchhas been living in New York for years. As the story opens, she's on the way back to Maycomb, Alabama, wearing "gray slacks, a black sleeveless blouse, white socks, and loafers," an outfit calculated to offend her prim and proper aunt. The time is pre-Kennedy; in an early sighting, Atticus Finch, square-jawed crusader for justice, is glaring at a book about Alger Hiss. But is Atticus really on the side of justice? As Scout wanders from porch to porch and parlor to parlor on both the black and white sides of the tracks, she hears stories that complicate herand ourunderstanding of her father. To modern eyes, Atticus harbors racist sentiments: "Jean Louise," he says in one exchange, "Have you ever considered that you can't have a set of backward people living among people advanced in one kind of civilization and have a social Arcadia?" Though Scout is shocked by Atticus' pronouncements that African-Americans are not yet prepared to enjoy full civil rights, her father is far less a Strom Thurmond-school segregationist than an old-school conservative of evolving views, "a healthy old man with a constitutional mistrust of paternalism and government in large doses," as her uncle puts it. Perhaps the real revelation is that Scout is sometimes unpleasant and often unpleasantly confrontational, as a young person among oldsters can be. Lee, who is plainly on the side of equality, writes of class, religion, and race, but most affectingly of the clash of generations and traditions, with an Atticus tolerant and approving of Scout's reformist ways: "I certainly hoped a daughter of mine'd hold her ground for what she thinks is rightstand up to me first of all." It's not To Kill a Mockingbird, yes, but it's very much worth reading. Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.