Monday, September 21, 2015

Go Set A Watchman by Harper Lee - My Review Of A Book That Should Have Probably Not Been Published

OK, I'll be honest here. What actually made me buy this book was the gorgeous orange cover. Do I regret buying it though? No. But that's only because had I not bought it, I would have never bought and read To Kill A Mockingbird and that book was one of my favorite books this year. And of all time. Go Set A Watchman is what basically made me read To Kill A Mockingbird, and that's about its main redeeming quality. 

Do I think Watchman was largely a cleverly executed marketing trap? Definitely! But I don't actually mind that since it did make a lot of people (myself included) finally pick up and read To Kill A Mockingbird. 

This review started as an angry rant in my head and while I did eventually tone it down a little bit, it's style is definitely going to be different from my other reviews. My original feelings while and just after reading the book were basically pissed and getting even more pissed. Looking back on the book though, I must admit that it wasn't all trash. So instead of posting an angry rant, I thought I would instead tell you the positive and negative things about the book.

The Negative Aspects

The manuscript that didn't make it

The first thing you need to know is that this is not a sequel of To Kill A Mockingbird. Myself included, a lot of people bought this thinking it was a sequel. The fact that all the characters are older and that the setting is the same certainly has something to do with the misunderstanding. But no, this is in fact an early manuscript of To Kill A Mockingbird. Yep. Watchman is basically the first draft that was originally rejected and reworked to produce Harper Lee's beloved masterpiece. 

So, reading this book, I couldn't help but feel a bit uncomfortable thinking that maybe this was something that was never meant to be published. It honestly made me feel like I was reading someone's secret diary or something. I just couldn't shake the feeling that I was reading something Harper Lee had never meant for the public to read. The debate as to Harper Lee consented to the publication is still open, but as far as I'm concerned, the simple fact that the debate exists at all makes me really uncomfortable. 

Plot elements from To Kill A Mockingbird have been shamelessly changed with no regards to what actually happened in the first book

Yes, we know it's a draft rather than a sequel of book one, but that's just another reason why we didn't actually need this book. Since it's only an early draft, it was perfectly fine for the publishers to validate changes made to the plot of the first book. To fans of To Kill A Mockingbird though, these plot changes just ruin the story and characters they love. It's like reading Harry Potter 8 and finding out that Harry had dumped Ginny for Hermione. I don't care if Watchman is supposed to count as canon or meta or whatever. As far as I'm concerned, it just created a really sucky situation for fans of To Kill A Mockingbird. 

Here's one of those plot changes. You might want to skip it if you haven't read To Kill A Mockingbird yet and don't want to be spoiled. 

Some characters now have completely different physical descriptions 

In To Kill A Mockingbird, Mayella Ewell, the girl who accused Tom Robinson of raping her, is described as being around 19. In Watchman though, when the events of the trial are being recounted, she's described as being 14 at the time. Why? Just, why?

Some characters have suffered full personality changes 

There was one such personality change that was rather heartbreaking and had me seriously considering putting the book down. To change a character's age or hair color without explanation is one thing but to completely alter a character's personality is downright wrong. Especially when it's a character you really loved. Highlight the space between *Start of spoiler* and *End of spoiler* to read the spoiler below:
*Start of spoiler*Atticus Finch, whom we've all admired for bravely fighting for a black man's justice in an era of ruthless racism is suddenly... a racist?! *End of spoiler*

They laid off a crucial main character without so much as a decent paragraph to break it to us.

All we got was a single sentence to explain this character's off-screen death and that's it. Yup, he/she is dead. Sorry but not sorry to break it to you like that. Moving on now...  Don't check this spoiler unless you've read both To Kill A Mockingbird and Go Set A Watchman! 
*Start of spoiler* Jem is dead. Jem is fucking dead. And we're supposed to be okay with the fact that we're told this in one, single, heartless sentence.*End of spoiler*

As much as I want to keep hating this book though, I have to admit that it wasn't all that bad. I will never love this book and still think it should have never been published, but there were some aspects of it that weren't so bad. 

The Positive Aspects

Scout's character  

The main positive thing about Watchman was that Scout, or Jean Louise as she's called now, was still the same character we all loved from the first book, albeit all grown up now. Her character stayed true to her portrayal as a child in To Kill A Mockingbird and was what made this book relatively okay. She might be an adult and go by Jean Louise now but she's still the adorably rebellious Scout we all love. She's an open-minded woman who lives in a time and place where racism is still rampant. Her ideologies and beliefs are very avant-garde for her time but she fully embraces them and remains true to herself no matter how hard it is in a small, traditional place as her Southern hometown. 

It's a quick read

The book might not seem like it when you first pick it up, but it's actually quite short, with large font and spacing and a fast-paced writing style. You can easily finish this in one day. It did take me two days though, but that's only because I got so upset I had to temporarily put it down. If you actually enjoy the story, you might finish it in one sitting.

The content of the flashbacks

There were flashbacks. Lots of them. Sometimes it even felt like the book was trying too hard to make us nostalgic. However, if you overlook that little detail, you'd probably really enjoy reading about Scout and her brother Jem's childhood days. These parts reminded me a lot of To Kill A Mockingbird, which was probably the goal. 

Final Word

I eventually gave this book 3 out of 5 stars, which was probably a bit generous considering the fact that I didn't even enjoy it that much. I don't regret reading this book though. Go Set A Watchman is possibly the year's most controversial book. 2015's Satanic Verses, so to speak. And the only way to educate yourself about the whole controversy and literary phenomenon is to read the book. Because of that, I will not tell people not to read Go Set A Watchman. By all means, do read it. You can only know where you stand on the debate if you've read the book. Maybe you'll hate it with a passion. Or, maybe you'll actually really enjoy it. You can only know if you read it. And if you've read or want to read it, feel free to share your thoughts with me in the comments. 


  1. I read To Kill A Mockingbird when I was still in high school, so I remember certain aspects but not all of it. I'll admit that Go Set a Watchman initially had me 1. wanting to reread TKAM and then 2. dive into the 'sequel' It wasn't until the reviews started coming out that I realized I'd need to know more before I actually did so. I didn't know all of the shady stuff that you shared here but now that I do, I HIGHLY doubt that I'll ever read GSAW. I DO still want to reread TKAM but it's like you said: this one sounds like it never should have seen the light of day, which is a shame! I'm sorry that you read it and were left in such a rage and filled with dissapointment but thank you for the informational and insightful review^^ xxxx

    1. I'm glad you found my review useful Micheline :)

  2. Wow, this has only made me less interested in reading GSAW actually. I know it's probably an great book on it's own (without the influence of the perfection that is TKAM), but I would be so angry too if I read this. I didn't really realize that this is an earlier version of TKAM though, I did think it was a sequel, and that it reviewed the trial of TKAM. I'm actually glad to know that then, since TKAM should be canon since it was published absolutely with Harper Lee's blessings. Who knows about this one.

    I'm very glad to read your review too, it makes me feel better about skipping this book! :)

    1. If I had known it wasn't actually a sequel, I would have probably not read it. I'm glad you found my review helpful. Trust me, you're not going to miss anything by skipping this book :)

  3. A very thoughtful and helpful review. I was excited to read this before it hit the shelves, but now after hearing all the hubub and reading reviews. I realize this was a shameless attempt to exploit and make money. Harper Lee's sister had it right. I will still read it and compare it and contrast it with original, plus I think it is an interesting snap shot into American History.

    1. Thanks Heidi :) Yeah, do read it. It should be an interesting experience.

  4. Thankfully, due to reviews I do know that this is not a sequel but more so a first draft that wasn't considered good enough to make it. And I can completely realise that this is different from the other book, so I am prepared if I do choose to pick it up. But I just don't know. I have had so many people not liking the characters or the plotline in this one, so when it comes down to this I don't know if it will even make a very good book itself. However, I have read TKAMB and I did like that one well enough, but didn't love it like the majority of people. Knowing that people who LOVED that one is not liking this makes me every more doubtful.

    1. Maybe if it had be a 'stand alone' I would have enjoyed it a bit more. Having read TKAMB though, I just couldn't help comparing both.

  5. Man, why do these things get published if they clearly aren't going to be a quality product? Just a money grab especially before things got polished? *sigh* I can see how this would be disappointing.