Celebitchy Book Club: ‘Sycamore Row’ by John Grisham

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Sycamore Row promised a stunning legal mystery from the mind of John Grisham. The book is a direct sequel to Grisham’s 1989 novel, A Time To Kill, which was adapted into a successful 1996 movie starring Matthew McConaughey as Jake Brigance. For that reason, all of Brigance’s dialogue in the sequel arrived in the McConaughey voice. That’s not a bad thing, but it was somewhat distracting because McConaughey usually makes me giggle. This is not John Grisham’s fault of course.

Sycamore Row picks up a few years after the first book’s conclusion. Brigance is still living with the aftermath of defending Carl Lee Hailey. Brigance lost his home and his dog during an arson attack targeting his family. White racists still seek to make his life miserable, and the sheriff must leave a patrol outside Brigance’s rented home just so his family can sllep at night. Brigance is also struggling to drum up some legal business. He’s dealing with the let down from going from a high-profile case to a series of everyday filler cases.

The book starts out with a mysterious bang when a wealthy man suffering from terminal cancer (Seth Hubbard) hangs himself and leaves the vast majority of his $20 million estate to his black caretaker (Lettie Lang). Hubbard hires Brigance as his estate lawyer by sending him a posthumous letter and holographic will. Hubbard wants Brigance to probate his estate and make sure his estranged family gets nothing. That part fascinated me because Hubbard instructed Brigance to let Hubbard’s children attend the funeral unaware and pretend to mourn him. Once the new will is revealed, the opposing sides try to discredit Lettie and show that she coerced Hubbard to change his will for her.

The book begins well and is rather engrossing until various lawyers start inserting themselves into the fray. Once discovery (along with all of the legal intricacies) begins, the book starts to lose momentum. There is little to no suspense to the plot, and while Lettie makes a formidable character to root for, there’s no doubt that she will eventually prevail and inherit millions. The twist is fitting but predictable, and I feel like Grisham wrote this book in his sleep. It was one of those “what if?” books. What if Grisham revisited the career of Jake Brigance? Well we find out that life is a lot less exciting for Brigance when he’s probating a will than when he defended an alleged murderer. The final trial scene is emotional but nowhere near as breathtaking as in A Time To Kill. Grisham couldn’t have topped that one anyway. He should have left Brigance in the Hall of Fame where he belonged.

Sycamore Row isn’t awful, but it won’t interest many people who aren’t major John Grisham fans already. I enjoyed parts of it, but Grisham easily could have cut the text down to novella size and ended up with a tighter product.

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Celebitchy’s take (with spoilers)
I agree with Bedhead’s opinion on the length and unnecessary details in this book. There were too many characters, and it seemed like Grisham worked hard to portray the realistic messiness of an estate settlement at the expense of the plot. I did find the mystery at the core much more interesting than Bedhead did. There were real moments when I thought the narrative was going to shift and to implicate Lettie. Mysterious figures would pop up with the promise of holding deep family secrets and motivations. With Grisham, you never know who is pulling the strings, and who will end up triumphant.

I am a Grisham fan. Although I love how he weaves a story with unique characters, I often find his endings too cut and dried. In Sycamore Row, we learned that Seth Hubbard wanted his death to right a horrible wrong that he witnessed as a child. Like the jury, we were left with no other conclusion about Hubbard’s intention, but it came as a surprise. I wanted to know more about the man who gave the middle finger to his kids by leaving a small fortune to an employee he kept at arm’s length. Instead we met all sorts of other characters who came and went without leaving much of an impact.

Our next book club selection is Gillian Flynn’s Dark Places, we’ll discuss it on April 16th!

Opening night of Broadway's A Time To Kill-Arrivals

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30 Responses to “Celebitchy Book Club: ‘Sycamore Row’ by John Grisham”

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  1. mzizkrizten says:

    Wow,I had no idea there was a sequel to A Time to Kill. It sounds phenomenal. Love me some Grisham.

  2. Sixer says:

    I actually read this one. I really have little to add: yes, he phoned it in; yes, the editor’s red pen seemed entirely missing. I think I wasted my time reading it since I had better things to do.

    Having said that, it was the kind of story I don’t mind finding left behind in a holiday cottage for reading when I’ve run out of my own stuff. Does anyone else read other people’s leavings like that?

  3. manda says:

    I hadn’t read any Grisham in LONG while (went to law school and that killed it), but I did enjoy A Time to Kill back when it came out, so I gave this book a whirl. I definitely agree with Bedhead’s take. Enjoyable, but blah. I blew threw it, easy breezey. I hadn’t really considered what happened to Brigance after the close of ATTK. After seeing the happy movie ending too many times to count, I guess I assumed things were ok after that (which was naive), so I found the updated life of a character I liked interesting.

    Also, did the dog die in ATTK? Like I said, watched the movie a bunch, and the dog survives the fire in the movie. If so, bummer, I’m glad they changed it for the movie.

    SUPER excited for Dark Places!!

  4. bettyrose says:

    I haven’t read the book. I admit I only clicked the link to see the vintage photos of Matthew McConaughey. I’ve been thinking a lot recently about rewatching a Time to Kill. I don’t remember being blown away by him as an actor back in those days, just his stunning beauty and dreamy voice. He’s evolved into a whole other sphere as an artist now. Barely a day goes by that he doesn’t come up in workplace or family conversation of his film & tv work this past year.

    Back to the book, though, I wouldn’t want to read the sequel until I’ve read the first one. I’ve never read Grisham. I used to prefer more literary, less plot driven books, but the more hours I put in at work these days, the more I crave a real page turner – but only something intelligently written. Is Grisham worth a $10 ebook purchase?

    • GoodNamesAllTaken says:

      I would read A Time To Kill. I have read most of Grisham’s books, and I think that’s his best. I didn’t read this one, and probably won’t. When he’s good, he’s very entertaining, but many of his books are phoned in movie scripts.

      • LadySlippers says:

        Agreed GoodNames.

        His first few books were very good with A Time to Kill being his best. I loved how his first book provoked a debate on what is the right thing to do a la Jodi Picoult. And from what I’ve read, only ATTK does that.

        I did read several of his other books but they quickly got very repetitive and predictable which I dislike. I haven’t read a Grisham book in years…

    • Emma says:

      I think my favorite book of his is The Firm. It´s a fun caper-style book. Nothing too deep, but it´s enjoyable.

    • LadySlippers says:

      @bettyrose: If you read only one Grisham book — A Time to Kill is the one to read. It’s very good and makes for a good conversation/ debate / discussion too.

    • bettyrose says:

      Thanks GNAT & Ladyslippers! I’ll give it a read! When I first decided I needed the mental escape of some gripping page turners, I picked a couple of Steven King books based on the movies I loved. The Shining was a completely different book than I’d imagined based on the movie. Much more gothic and cerebral than actual horror. i.e. Never judge a book by its movie – even a great movie. A book can take you so much more deeply into the minds of the characters.

  5. Emma says:

    I listened to this on audiobook a few weeks ago. I agree that Grisham went into too much detail with all the lawyers who were representing the different parties. This kind of detail is hard to keep track of, especially in an audiobook, where you easily flip back a few pages to check names. But, on the other hand, it did give a realistic idea of what the whole probate process can be like.

    Once the number of lawyers involved had thinned out, I quite enjoyed it the book. It wasn´t up there with Grisham´s best, but it was OK. I did think that Jake and his wife were presented as just TOO perfect — ethical, great marriage, all-round nice-guys. I found that aspect of the book tiresome, becuase it was as though Jake had almost flaws.

    All up…a good holiday read. (Or, in my case, a good holiday listen!)

  6. TheCountess says:

    I was hoping your next book would be Grisham’s newest thriller, “The Celery Incident” :)

  7. Midnight says:

    I have to agree. Of all John Grisham’s book, this is definitely the worse. Was expecting much, much more from him. If you haven’t bought the book, don’t bother. Use your library. It’s not worth the price.

  8. itsetsyou says:

    I haven’t read the book but my mom is a big fan – she says she has a crash on Grisham! 55 year old crashing reader, cute :) )

  9. Amy says:

    Aaah I swore off Gillian Flynn after Sharp Objects (I also read Gone Girl). That book almost made me physically ill I was nauseous reading it. It just felt like she flipped through the DSM IV and gave this small town every psychological illness that she could think of. It was even more twisted, more sick, and darker than Gone Girl (though I did end up rooting for the main character). After reading the synopsis for Dark Places I was like no thanks. Maybe May’s pick will be more appealing for me.

  10. Peppa says:

    I like John Grishman in general, but this novel felt totally phoned in to me. I felt like he had to keep reminding himself that he was writing a story that took place in the late 80s rather than 2014. An awful lot of characters had car phones, which was pretty convenient for the plot. The “twist” ending was something I saw coming about a mile away. I also felt a little bit of sympathy for Hubbard’s children, because even though they were awful people, he sounded like an absentee, awful dad so maybe that contributed to it. You guys are right, we didn’t know enough about Hubbard to understand his actions and the motivation behind them. I also could only imagine MM, Ashley Judd, Donald Sutherland and Oliver Platt thanks to the movie!

  11. Kim says:

    I *just* finished reading it. Obviously nothing will ever be as good as A Time To Kill and being a book about law and trials, it’s going to get bogged down with those details.

    I enjoyed it! It’s the first “book club” book I purchased and read specifically for this site so I’m kind of jazzed about that. I’m just a closet book nerd, not one to buy and go to groups and hold discussions about it.

    While there was some parts I could do away with, I enjoyed the book for what it was. A follow-up to one of my favourite books. It was nice to read what happened with these characters after the emotionally charged Hailey trial. If anything, it would have been nice if they had a “guest appearance” by Tonya and Carl Lee, etc., just to have closure.

    The Ancil Hubbard video, it was riveting. You kind of saw it coming. You saw most of it coming, but it still made for an interesting read.

    The only downside was because I read the book and watched A Time To Kill, I couldn’t invent images of the characters in my head that didn’t involve Mathew McConaughey, Ashley Judd, etc.

    I would be interested in seeing if they make this into a movie too.

    PS: I already read Dark Places!

    • Celebitchy says:

      Thanks for joining the book club Kim! I agree about how the end was riveting even though it was foreshadowed heavily. Did you like Dark Places?

      • Kim says:

        Thanks!

        Dark Places was good. It took awhile to get into. But I like my books like I like my movies: off-beat and not too philosophical.

        I don’t want to give too much away in case you haven’t read it but the end just seemed like a sellout. Like she didn’t know how to tidy it up so just went for the easy way.

        PS: Because of this site I’ve become obsessed with Benedict Cumberbatch! Like it’s taken over my life and he will be mine all mine! 3 am watching Sherlock Holmes when I should be sleeping! Then to follow it up with another go at Star Trek: Into Darkness.

        You all have created a monster!

  12. Seen says:

    A bad read. Totally predictable and a little bit soap box-ish, which I find Grisham guilty if more and more.

  13. kimbers says:

    There’s a lion in my book
    There’s a tiger in my book
    There’s a sneaky alligator
    I and spy on in my book…
    all I need is a book to read….
    join your library

    Had that old pbs song in my head reading all the comments. Gonna try to find a used copy of this one, so it’s a bad read? So was shadows in the wind, and i finished that one.

  14. Happy21 says:

    I find John Grisham an extremely overrated author. He’s not awful at all but I’ve read my fair share of his books and I find his earlier stuff by far his best but I find it 50/50 for how good his books really are. I’ve no interest in reading this one. I loved both A Time to Kill the book and A Time to Kill the movie. I’m fine to just leave the characters alone.

    I have read Dark Places by Gillian Flynn and I LOVED it. Can’t wait for the discussion next month :)