Harper Lee's second novel, Go Set a Watchman, was one of the most highly-anticipated novels of 2015. Her compelling first novel, To Kill a Mockingbird is a standard in most English curricula across the world, and it has been named by many as a life-changing work of literature. While many remember the trial of Tom Robinson as the most compelling episode in the novel, it is in reality a coming-of-age story, not just for Scout Finch, but also of her brother, Jem. It's also a revealing look into small-town, Southern America. Memorable characters such as Jem and Scout's Aunt Alexandra, Boo Radley, Walter Cunningham, Dill Harris, and Mrs. Rachel Dubose populate this small town with their quirks, virtues, and foibles. Through her experiences, Scout encounters many realities of life and begins to understand the ways of the world.
Go Set a Watchman may be another novel about Jean Louise (Scout) Finch, but it is far from a sequel of To Kill a Mockingbird. In Watchman, Jean Louise, now age 26, has returned to Maycomb, Alabama for a short visit--she's been living in New York City for the last 5 years. She's been dating, long-distance, Henry (Hank) Clinton, who is working as a lawyer in her father's office. The novel details her reconnection with the community and people of her home town. It is the early years of the Civil Rights movement, and Jean Louise feels the tension of the age.
On a literary level, Watchman does not even read like a sequel to Mockingbird. The cadence and beauty of the language in the first novel is absent from the second. Scout's story in Mockingbird is told in first-person, allowing the reader to more fully identify with Scout as she navigates her childhood. Even though the first-person narrator is an older Scout reflecting on her childhood, you still see Scout's world through childlike, innocent eyes. The Jean Louise of the novel does not seem to be a grown-up Scout Finch from Mockingbird.
Watchman is told in third-person, albeit from Jean Louise's perspective. This narrative choice separated me as a reader from Jean Louise and I did not feel the same emotional connection to her. Another result of this narrative choice is that it made the novel seem to have been written by someone other than Harper Lee herself; as if someone else was attempting to write in Lee's style and yet failing to quite hit the mark.
The story itself was appealing, but it did not have the same intensity or personality as Mockingbird. The charm of Mockingbird was the portrait of a small, Southern town filled with unique personality. The Maycomb of Watchman is devoid of this charm. There are several flashbacks of Scout's childhood escapades with Dill, Jem, and others. While these scenes were charming and engaging, reminding me of similar scenes in Mockingbird, they did not do much to redeem the rest of the novel's shortcomings.
I am not going to share any spoilers, but there were several characters from Mockingbird whose absence in Watchman was significant. These characters' absence wasn't sufficiently explained, and this left a lot unresolved in my mind.
Even if you haven't yet read Watchman, you may have heard that there is a shocking revelation about Atticus Finch at the climax of the novel. This shocking revelation was not what I anticipated: my thought was that Atticus had a long-term relationship with Calpurnia, and that some of Calpurnia's children were Jem and Scout's half-siblings. This is not the case; I will only reveal that the revelation in the novel was a letdown compared to what I had anticipated. In fact, I had to go back and reread the scene to really fully understand how "shocking" it was.
I am not disappointed that I read Go Set a Watchman. I entered reading it knowing that it would not be To Kill a Mockingbird, Part II. I did not expect it to live up to the beauty and intensity of Mockingbird. If you loved Mockingbird, read Watchman. Read it for what it is: another novel about Jean Louise Finch, age 26.