(Image from Barnes & Noble)
"She did not stand alone, but what stood behind her, the most potent moral force in her life, was the love of her father. She never questioned it, never thought about it, never even realized that before she made any decision of importance, the reflex, 'What would Atticus do?' passed through her unconscious; she never realized what made her dig in her feet and stand firm whenever she did was her father; that whatever was decent and of good report in her character was put there by her father; she did not know that she worshiped him ... [she was] complacent in her snug world" (117-18).
When I first heard the announcement about the release of Harper Lee's "new" novel, Go Set a Watchman, I felt ecstatic. More from Maycomb? Yes, please! Then reviews started trickling in. Not-so-great reviews. The flame of my enthusiasm flickered a little. Was Go Set a Watchman going to tarnish my undying love for To Kill a Mockingbird? Would it spoil everything I thought I knew about Atticus Finch & Company? Should I risk reading it or would I be better off just leaving it on the shelf? Since I'm nothing if not daring (actually, I'm nothing like daring), I decided to take the plunge. And, guess what? I didn't hate Go Set a Watchman. I get why some people did, but I didn't. In fact, I liked it.
The novel opens with 26-year-old Jean Louise "Scout" Finch coming home to visit her father in Maycomb. Although little has changed in the decades since she was a child running wild in the streets of the small town, Atticus has somehow become an old man. At 72, he's crippled with rheumatoid arthritis and being looked after by Alexandra, his impossible, always disapproving sister. Of course, seeing her father isn't the only reason Jean Louise is visiting—there's also Henry Clinton, Atticus' right-hand man. And Scout's fianceé, if she would just go ahead and accept his marriage proposal already. Determined to "pursue the stony path of spinsterhood" (15), at least for now, Jean Louise is happy to flirt with her long-suffering beau, philosophize with her aging father, and use her modern, New York-ified ways to scandalize the town she loves so well.
While happily pursuing these aims, Jean Louise stumbles upon a discovery so shocking it shakes her to her very core. With this sucker punch to the gut, her safe little world tilts on its axis, throwing everything she thought she knew about her fair-minded father, his equally equitable colleagues, and her beloved Maycomb into doubt. Is it possible that the people and place she's known all her life have changed so irrevocably in her absence? Or is it Jean Louise? As she grapples with the answers to questions she's never thought to ask, she must face the ultimate question: Where does she truly belong—in prejudiced, provincial Maycomb or in permissive, progressive New York City? It's becoming increasingly obvious that she can't have both.
Like To Kill a Mockingbird, Go Set a Watchman is a coming-of-age story. Even though Scout is already an adult in body, it's her awareness that evolves throughout this novel. The eyes through which she viewed her childhood are opened in ways that are startling and life-changing. Readers who adore To Kill a Mockingbird will likely be just as troubled by the revelations that pummel Scout as she is. Knowing the hard truth, even about fictional people in made-up places, can be horrifying. While I still prefer the idealized version of Maycomb and her residents that appears in TKAM, it's fascinating to compare that with the more complex one Lee offers in Go Set a Watchman. Studied together, the books offer a truly intriguing and enlightening reading experience. Go Set a Watchman isn't the masterpiece that its predecessor is—in fact, it's clunky, confusing, and downright dull in places (although hilarious in others)—but as a companion novel (not a sequel or prequel), it adds illuminating layers to Scout's story. Even if you're a diehard ignorance-is-bliss kind of reader, you don't want to miss this novel. Not only does it bring to life a complicated, contradictory period in history, but it highlights how little things have changed over the years. For a book written in the 1950s, Go Set a Watchman (especially its last few chapters) addresses ideas/themes that are oddly, eerily pertinent to issues we're dealing with today. Beyond that, it's a compelling tale about contradiction, balance, and being humble enough to accept other people's beliefs even when (especially when) they conflict with your own. In my opinion, Go Set a Watchman does exactly what the jacket copy says it does: "It not only confirms the enduring brilliance of To Kill a Mockingbird, but also serves as its essential companion, adding depth, context, and new meaning to an American classic."
(Readalikes: To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee)
If this were a movie, it would be rated:
for mild language (no F-bombs), racial epithets, sexual innuendo, and references (not graphic) to sex, rape, etc.
To the FTC, with love: I bought a copy of Go Set a Watchman from Amazon with a portion of the millions I make from my lucrative career as a book blogger. Ha ha.