Sycamore Row by John Grisham

By Ekta R. Garg

November 13, 2013

Rated: Borrow it

A young lawyer thinks he can use the momentum from a career-changing case to carry him through a new challenge: one of the town’s wealthiest—some would argue the wealthiest resident—writes a holographic will that cuts out his entire family and leaves 90 percent of his estate to his maid and then commits suicide.  In the suicide note the man names the lawyer the one responsible for making sure the holographic will gets fulfilled to the last letter, and all of a sudden the young lawyer starts to wonder whether this case will break his fortitude.  John Grisham brings back the main character from his first novel, A Time to Kill, for his latest book, Sycamore Row.

In 1988 Clanton, Mississippi, Jake Brigance continues to practice law.  Three years have passed since he won the phenomenal verdict of an acquittal for a black man who killed his daughter’s rapists.  When that case ended Jake rode a tidal wave of moral support and felt the certainty that the verdict would dramatically change his fortune.  He’d survived threats from the KKK and losing his home to arson, but surely everything would get better.

In reality Jake still struggles to pay his bills.  Police still patrol his street every night to guard him and his family from any additional threats.  And he’s still waiting for that one big case that will elevate his financial status for good.

So when he receives a letter in the mail from Seth Hubbard, he feels like he has his chance.  Seth mails the letter the day before committing suicide.  Tired of dealing with his aggressive lung cancer, he has decided to end it all and he wants Jake fulfill his last wishes by taking on the role of lawyer for the estate.  With the most sincere of intentions, Jake accepts the task.

Clanton, however, is a small town, and news travels fast about the will.  Seth Hubbard’s children return to town to wail and cry about the loss of their father (the fact that they hated the man notwithstanding,) and the maid who will ultimately benefit from the will suddenly finds herself surrounded by family and friends.  Seth also leaves five percent of his estate to his brother, but no one knows where Ancil Hubbard is.

Jake must deal with it all—the greedy, self-centered children, the task of finding Ancil, and trying to convince Lettie, Seth’s former maid, to trust him.  When other hotshot lawyers swoop into town to take their own “piece of the pie,” things only get more complicated.

Veteran author John Grisham once again has penned a novel that marches along at a brisk pace, but this book may leave readers underwhelmed.  Frequent over-usage of terms (particularly the one about pie) and some redundancies will make readers want to skip ahead a few paragraphs.  Because so many parties want to get their shot at Seth Hubbard’s fortune, almost a dozen lawyers end up in court at one point making the presiding judge—and the readers watching the whole scene—huff in consternation.

Several minor characters keep asking themselves and each other one big question: why did Seth Hubbard leave so much money to a maid he’d only employed for three years?  The answer does not necessarily come as a surprise to anyone, especially once Ancil’s whereabouts are determined.  Grisham’s revelations stay true to 1988 Mississippi, but for once the discussions along racial lines sound a little too pat and rehearsed.  Jake Brigance, too, comes across as somewhat one-dimensional.  He stays his course, and despite the enormous fee he will earn if he successfully completes his task he doesn’t really let money propel him forward.  Many of Grisham’s protagonists have exhibited shades of gray, thereby coming across as real and likable and making readers cheer them on.  Jake Brigance falls short in this regard.

Still, die-hard Grisham fans may like this one.  It may not necessarily be worth the full purchase, but for those of you wanting a speedy read and a lot of legal talk in Grisham’s signature style do make it a point to borrow Sycamore Row from the library.


What the ratings mean:

Bookmark it!–Read this book and then buy it and add it to to your own collection.  It’s definitely worth it!

Borrow it–Check this one out from the library; it’s a worthy read, but think twice before spending your hard-earned money on it.

Bypass it–Free time is precious.  Don’t spend it on this book!

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