Book Review x2: Go Set a Watchman and To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

Review: I was not planning on reading Go Set a Watchman. I had heard enough negative press and bad reviews about it that I didn’t really want to go out of my way to read the book. But the book came my way, and I was actually pleasantly surprised upon finishing it. I didn’t think it was as terrible as so many have said. The plot is definitely lacking, but I did find it interesting and many of the long, drawn-out debates that take place in the book were interesting for me to read. Basically, Jean Louise (Scout) has returned home from New York City to visit her father, Atticus, and she discovers that Atticus is advocating segregation. This shatters her world and her thoughts of her father, and much of the book is her working out her thoughts and disappointment. There are occasional flashbacks to a young Scout, and this is where the book really shines. Young Scout is infinitely more interesting. The older Jean Louise is kind of a dud. Gone is the sense of adventure that Mockingbird has. There are some sections that are almost identical to those in To Kill a Mockingbird, but they are odd choices (to me). Not really essential plot points, but more of random description of the town people. I did read the books back-to-back (I read Watchman first and then Mockingbird). I probably would not have picked up on those things had I not read the books so close together. Watchman is big on long speeches and short on action.

For me Watchman is missing a key ingredient. Jem has passed away, so he is not in the book at all, other than brief passing mentions. I adored the relationship between Jem and Scout in Mockingbird. I love Jem, and I think he is a great older brother. He’s not a perfect character (destroying Mrs Dubose’s flowers), but he truly cares for his sister and his father and he is loyal. I would’ve loved to have seen Jem’s reaction to Atticus, and loved to see Jem & Scout’s relationship as adults.

Now Scout I never realized before has very strong parallels to George R.R. Martin’s Arya Stark. They are both “tomboys”, mouthy, courageous, and loyal. I wonder if Scout was some inspiration for Arya? It really hit me on this read how similar their characters are. I did a quick internet search for character analysis of Scout and Arya, and I didn’t see anything pop up. I wonder if anyone has done a compare/contrast of these 2 characters – it would be interesting!

This was my third time reading Mockingbird. The first time I read it was required reading in high school, and then I read it again maybe 7 or 8 years ago. First time I read the book I enjoyed it. Second time I absolutely loved it. And the third time, I now still really like it, but I don’t love it. And I’m not sure if the reason I’m less than enthused about it now is because I just read Watchman. Maybe. But Watchman for me just highlighted the fact that this is fiction. These are fictional characters, and the author may decide to make a character perfect in one book, and then in another book have him be a weak man, folding to pressure, but perhaps be a more complex character because of his weakness. Yes, I’m talking about Atticus, and I must say that Atticus wasn’t ever a favorite literary character of mine. He’s great in Mockingbird, and I love his character, but he never struck my soul the way other characters have (ie, Hermione Granger, Sansa Stark, Elizabeth Bennett, Aragorn, and Jay Gatsby to name a few). I think because he is so perfect in Mockingbird, he is on another level compared to any other characters. He is strong and courageous and always does the right thing, regardless of what anyone says. But in Watchman he is a different man. Perhaps this has to do with the age Scout is when narrating the story. In Mockingbird she is 6-8. In Watchman she is 26, and she no longer looks to her father as God. He is just a human. But Watchman was never designed to be published, and it is very obvious (when compared to Mockingbird) that it is a work in progress, and ideas were taken and shifted into Mockingbird. And it also just struck me that what a struggle it is to write genuine, entertaining, realistic characters and stories. I applaud anyone who can create characters and plots in their heads and turn it into words on a page. So I really felt the author’s struggle, and I think that is what made Mockingbird this time around lose its ease for me. I felt the work that went into it, and it made me as a reader tired. But, maybe in 10 years I’ll read Mockingbird again (probably won’t ever read Watchman again) and go back to loving it.

Go Set a Watchman does have some good qualities. It raises some very interesting discussion points, and some very fascinating (to me) speeches/debates in the book, conversation between two people that goes on for pages and pages. I really enjoy reading people converse about controversial subjects, but others may find those sections dull. Also, the stories that Jean Louise flashes back to are absolutely hilarious. Scout is one funny character! And I felt the theme of prejudice towards anyone different more in Watchman. Prejudice against a different race, different class, different religion, different lifestyle choices, different political beliefs, and even different parts of the US (NYC & the South). But this may be because I read Watchman first.

If Atticus is a literary hero of yours, I would not read Go Set a Watchman. I just wouldn’t. I don’t think it would change your view of him (Mockingbird’s Atticus and Watchman’s Atticus are two different people), but it would make you sad to read. Watchman is a different book, with different/similar characters, and there is more heart and life in Mockingbird. It isn’t a bad book, but it just puts images in your head that are different than the characters in To Kill a Mockingbird. Mockingbird is a stronger novel – the focus is on Atticus’ bravery and courage, where Watchman focuses more on Scout’s bravery and courage in standing up to her father. I do think that an interesting book club would be to read both books and then discuss the two. I would definitely be interested in hearing someone’s opinion of the two books who had never read Mockingbird before.

Bottom Line for Go Set A Watchman: Read with caution. A different Atticus, and Jem is missing. This is not To Kill a Mockingbird. Not even close. But it isn’t a terrible book.

Bottom Line for To Kill A Mockingbird: Stands up after 3 readings within 20 years. More emotionally satisfying than Watchman, but this time I could feel the author’s struggle to write.

You might like to read:

  • Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton – set in 1940s South Africa, this beautiful, haunting story tells of Stephen Kumalo and his son, Absalom, who is arrested for the murder of a white man. One of the only books I’ve finished and then immediately re-read.

And I need to read:

  • more classics! I’m constantly reminded of how many books I haven’t read … I sometimes get overwhelmed with how many books are out there … but I suppose the answer to this is to read more! Now I just need to find the time…

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