Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee

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I hesitate to call this a book review. It’s not a review so much as loosely-connected thoughts about what has to be the biggest book release of the year. Hell, maybe even this decade. And it’s not so much a critique of the novel as it is a viewing of it from the lens of a writer.

I highly suggest checking out Book Riot’s podcast episode this week, #115 “All the Asterisks.” It’s a brutally honest take on Go Set a Watchman, covering everything from plot and characters to cover art and marketing.

When I finished Go Set a Watchman, I called my mom. It’s no secret that I get my love of reading from my parents: I trade book recs with my mother, an eighth grade Language Arts teacher, and the only person with a more voracious literary appetite is my father. My mother had already finished the book, and she was eager to talk about it.

Both of us enjoyed the childhood flashbacks; they didn’t fit into the novel proper as much as they featured some engaging, nostalgic writing that jumped off the page. I didn’t get into the book until 100+ pages in – and would have abandoned the book had it been any other author or novel. The opening felt very standard, even for having been written in the 1950s.

The thing that struck me is the overwhelming sensation that this was a starter manuscript. A good one – better than most, I’d say – but a starter one nonetheless.

A starter manuscript is, effectively, the first full-length draft you write and bury somewhere. Although perhaps intended for publishing initially, it allows the writer a space he or she desperately needs: a space to write. A space to make mistakes, create shitty characters, blunder through metaphors, and construct plot holes with reckless abandon.

Not everyone needs a starter manuscript, and some writers need more than one.

But this was, ultimately, a solid initial draft. It felt disconnected, with pacing issues and thick, hollow lulls. There were scenes that shined and sparkled with promise, but just as many dull ones. Some of the dialogue felt stilted and forced, but when combined with internal monologues or memories, the conversations among characters worked.

Some sections feel rushed in a good way: stream-of-consciousness, dizzy, and discombobulated. It works since several scenes feature one or more characters in tense, highly personal situations.

And of course, there are some brilliant lines. There were moments where you could see why Harper Lee pushed through to craft To Kill a Mockingbird, where it all came together: characters, story, setting, and skill. It pokes through here and there in Go Set a Watchman, but it was more interesting to me as a writer than reader.

A few of my favorite lines throughout the novel:

My favorite subtle, singular sentence:

She touched yesterday cautiously, then withdrew.

My favorite memory wrapped in present moment:

Jean Louise looked at one of them with acid amusement: when Jean Louise was ten, she made her only attempt to join a crowd, and she asked Sarah Finley one day, “Can I come to see you this afternoon?” “No,” said Sarah, “Mamma says you’re too rough.”

Now we are both lonely, for entirely different reasons, but it feels the same, doesn’t it?

My favorite (unintentional) laugh-out-loud line:

Have you ever consider that men, especially men, must conform to certain demands of the community they live in simply so they can be of service to it?

Especially, speaker-who-shall-not-be-named? Let’s chat about gender privilege later.

Whereas  To Kill a Mockingbird focuses on issues of race and the experiences of “the other,” Go Set a Watchman feels more intimate, and read to me as a story about destroying your idols and seeing your parents as human. Race is still a large part of the book, but it feels more like a vehicle for familial conflict than an integral core of the novel. Again, just an element that isn’t fully fleshed out. There’s potential there, especially with some of the legal components and interactions with Calpurnia. Scout’s experience at “the Coffee” – a gathering of young ladies to welcome Scout back for her visit – served as an excellent weave of the social and the personal. There was a section that, without offering any spoilers, I wanted to share:

You are fascinated with yourself. You will say anything that occurs to you, but what I can’t understand are the things that do occur to you. I should like to take your head apart, put a fact in it, and watch it go its way through the runnels of your brain until it comes out of your mouth. We were both born here, we went to the same schools, we were taught the same things. I wonder what you saw and heard.

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3 thoughts on “Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee

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