Review: Sycamore Row

The writing style between this and A Time To Kill are very similar, but Sycamore Row is so much more polished, if a little less interesting. Part of that is the overall plot is just not as attention-grabbing as the plot to A Time To Kill. It answers a lot fewer “big questions” (is it okay to take the law into your own hands, etc), and becomes mired in a somewhat boring dispute over an estate. It only begins to get interesting when there is a BIG SECRET. Several of Grisham’s writing “tics” are present here as they were in the first novel, but not as overused. One of the biggest differences I noticed was a huge lack of the n-word. It was liberally sprinkled over A Time To Kill, but Sycamore Row is much more reigned in. He engages in a lot of telling rather than showing, which is not only a good rule for visual entertainment, but is also good with books. Near the end, he actually writes “As seasoned lawyers, they should have known better than to plan the rest of the trial” which is such a huge dun dun DUNNNN.

Essentially, the plot is that an old man who is estranged from his family commits suicide, leaving all of his sizable estate to a black housekeeper he had only known for 3 years. His surviving family is outraged, and so they hire some big guns and take it to court. The deceased has a long-lost and presumed dead brother who is found, and tapes a shocking deposition that illuminates exactly why this man left 24 million dollars to this woman. Being able to boil it down so concisely is part of its downfall. There just wasn’t much there to fill all 447 pages.

In contrast to A Time To Kill, I felt like the racial aspects were better, although not perfect. It was still exceedingly sexist. I was somewhat bothered that Ellen Roark doesn’t exist at all in this novel, even after in the conclusion to A Time To Kill she had been brutally beaten by the KKK and left to die, and that is basically how her story ends. It would have been nice for her to even make a cameo in this novel, at least so we know that she is doing okay. (I realize that most people wouldn’t have read both stories back-to-back, but she was a major character in the first!) Jake’s secretary at the beginning of the book is just as belittled as Ethel Twitty was, except instead of being old and ugly, she’s a lazy housewife. (C’mon, John…) It’s like he wants to emphasize that he is such a moral man because he is NOT TEMPTED BY HIS SECRETARY. Because there’s no way an ugly, old, or lazy woman would ever be tempting, am I right? The stand-in for Paralegal Ellen Roark in this book is Portia Lang, the black housekeeper Lettie’s daughter, who has just returned from being abroad and in the military, and now is interested in studying the law. How cool would it have been for Portia and Ellen to work together, and learn from each other? (Ok, I’ll drop it.)

I’m sure that my declarations of the sexism in this book are being scoffed by the two people reading this. So I have a selection of excerpts to share.

“I got the impression she’s a fairly typical black woman for these parts.” […] “Is she attractive?”

Jake and Dewayne exchanged a nervous handshake while shapely Kamila watched close by.

“Tell Carla I love her and lust after her body.” “She knows it. Later.”

Portia found her to be polite, gracious, and seemingly comfortable with another black female in the house.

The last one kind of is shockingly terrible. Why on earth would a woman be uncomfortable with another woman’s presence, whether they share a skin color or not? Are they dogs, sniffing each other and growling over territory? I kind of wish I had notated some of the even more terrible lines throughout A Time To Kill. Rest assured, it can be worse.

There is some minor fallout for Jake with regards to the Hailey trial, which is referenced quite a bit. Grisham doesn’t pretend that Jake isn’t an arrogant jerk (although, supposedly a moralistic arrogant jerk), and the troubles he is having collecting the insurance money on his charboiled house is due to that. His slimey divorce lawyer pal fixes that up for him rather conveniently, but there are lingering problems with the arsonists going free and many having not been charged at all. The KKK hasn’t returned, but there are mutterings that maybe they haven’t finished with Jake and so he carries a loaded gun in his briefcase to protect himself and his family. I did appreciate that small sliver of continuity.

My takeaway from this book is that is it okay. It’s fine. Nothing special. It’s much better as a piece of writing than A Time To Kill in many ways, but part of its problems began in that book and carry over to this one. The sensibility of the town is actually pretty good, and it may be both novel’s most fully developed character.

3 stars.

This book fulfills no requirements for the challenge.

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