John Grisham is one of those authors whose name you probably know, even if you’ve never read a single one of his books. My mother has always been an avid reader, and I distinctly remember a bunch of Grisham’s books being on her reading list. Unfortunately though, I’d never read one of his books, though I was aware that he writes legal thrillers. So when Walmart offered me the opportunity to review his newest book, Sycamore Row, via the Walmart Moms book club, I jumped at the chance.
Sycamore Row is actually a continuation of one of Grisham’s most well known books, A Time to Kill, which had also been turned into a movie featuring Matthew McConaghey. Well, I had not read that book, nor had I seen more than a few minutes of the movie, so I was completely unaware of the back story when I started reading this one. This left me reading the first half of the book with some confusion, since I had no point of reference.
Let me get into the story.
Jake Brigance is an attorney in small town Mississippi who finds himself in the middle of a will dispute when Seth Hubbard, a wealthy white businessman, names him as the estate attorney in a handwritten will that Seth created just one day before committing suicide. Seth warns Jake that there will be a fight, because of a couple of facts:
- In the handwritten will, Seth left 95% of his very generous estate to his black housekeeper, leaving the remainder to his long lost brother and his church. The will cuts out his children completely, in no uncertain terms.
- This is not Seth’s first will. There’s another, written under the guidance of powerful attorneys, that will no doubt come into play, because his children were named in that will.
Seth directs Jake to defend the handwritten will at all costs.
The book dives into the mystery head first. Who is Seth Hubbard, really, and just how rich was he? Why would he leave so much of his wealth to his housekeeper — a black woman, no less (for context, this is 1980s Mississippi). Why would he blindly trust Jake, a man he had never met, to defend his new will?
After initially setting up the story, there was a lot of legal maneuvering and background on a lot of characters in the town. My biggest issue is that it took a long time for Grisham to reveal what had transpired in A Time to Kill, leaving Jake in his current situation, three years later. There were a lot of references to it, but I was halfway through the book before I found out that Jake was in the good graces of the black community because he had successfully defended a black man on trial for killing two white men who had raped his young daughter. It was a case that had rocked race relations in the town and surrounding areas, and Jake was still dealing with the aftermath.
I guess the assumption is that most people have either read the previous book or seen the movie. However, since it was originally released more than 20 years ago, there may be a lot of people who are not familiar. I wish I’d learned the details of Jake’s history earlier on. My unfamiliarity made the first half of the book feel slow.
However, I will say that the story gets increasingly more interesting as the book progresses. We learn a little bit about a lot of people, but it’s enough to set the stage for a heated will dispute and show us that upholding the law isn’t always about doing what’s right. In fact, this story made it clear that it’s not always easy to tell what is “right” to begin with — particularly when there are millions of dollars at stake to muddle everyone’s judgement.
I stuck with it, and I’m glad I did, because Sycamore Row came to an unexpected and thoroughly satisfying conclusion. It was also a stark reminder that race relations in this country still have a long way to go. Though the book is set in the 80s, a lot of the attitudes and prejudices present in the book are still very much alive and well today. Reading it from the perspective of a black woman who currently lives in the South definitely gave me a unique perspective.
All that to say if you’re a John Grisham fan who is already familiar with characters, this book will definitely round out their stories for you. If you’re a new reader, you may want to read or watch A Time to Kill first to brush up on the background, as it will make the story a bit easier to process. Either way, it’s a satisfying legal thriller that will teach you a lot about what people are capable of when they can smell money.
You can get the book now at Walmart.com for just $16.36, more than 40% off the retail price. (aff)
DISCLOSURE: As a participant in the Walmart Moms Program, I’ve received product samples and compensation for my time and efforts in creating this post. All thoughts and opinions are my own.