In my last post, I wrestled with my feelings toward Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. It bored me, enthralled me, infuriated me, made me complain bitterly. But most importantly, it engaged me. Reading those books that frustrate me so is one of the reasons why I love reading. They challenge my understanding of style, plot, character, what makes a book “good” societally and personally. I don’t expect to love every book I read, but I expect to be able to talk with some passion about what I didn’t like while still recognizing the value of the book.
The problem with this latest book, John Grisham’s A Painted House, is that there’s just not much to talk about. Like Wolf Hall, nothing happens, but the nothing is not that interesting. The nothing is punctuated with moments of violence, but even those moments’ shock factor has a blandness to it. And, unfortunately, it is part of my job to talk about this book, selected as the last book of the year for my sophomore English students.
A Painted House tells the story of 7 year old Luke and his family as they pick cotton, try to pay back their debts, and play baseball in 1952 Arkansas. The drama and violence come from the arrival of the Spruills, a hill family, and the Mexican workers, all hired to help the Chandler’s harvest their cotton crop. Wildcards Hank Spruil and Cowboy (one of the Mexicans) enjoy getting into fights and taking things too far. A new-born baby and a son fighting in Korea complicate things for the family as well. I enjoyed reading the book. It was…sweet. Nice. A simple coming-of-age story. My students enjoyed reading the book. It was…sweet. Easy. Enjoyable. But we struggled to find things to talk about until I asked them for their real thoughts on the book. And their concerns aligned with mine.
Several students complained that Luke did not read as 7 but rather 9 or 10 or even 11. They felt that Grisham’s inability to properly write a 7-year-old frequently dragged them out of the story and set up jarring disconnects, such as a 7-year-old having pubescent feelings for a 17-year-old girl. It lessened the truth of the story. Additionally, the felt that Grisham spent so much time setting up plot twists and revelations that he just left dangling with absolutely no resolution. One student thought it was as if he forgot about many of the threads he had started weaving into the tapestry of the story. Certainly a few elements can be left unresolved, often to great effect, but the sheer number of questions left was frustrating and honestly seemed like laziness on Grisham’s part. The student did not like the end of the book, mainly because of its blandness. I frequently heard the comment, “It just kind of ends.” There was no satisfaction for the reader in the final pages.
Finally, the last major issue the students has was that they felt like it was a not-very-good response to To Kill a Mockingbird. They felt that the bildungsroman genre was much better served by Harper Lee’s seminal novel, and that Grisham’s story felt like a poor and a little desperate attempt to recreate the success of To Kill A Mockingbird for a new, modern audience. In making this critique, my students reaffirmed their love of Lee’s novel and their recognition of its import in American culture, which warmed my teacher heart!
Granted this novel is Grisham’s first novel out of his normal genre of taught legal thrillers, and there are moment of absolutely gorgeous description in A Painted House. He has a knack for capturing those totally ordinary, all-too-familiar moments of growing up: the taste of fresh, cold ice cream at the town picnic; the sultry weather of summer in the South; the reverence for those older, cooler kids; the delight at spending your own money. But a novel cannot rest on these moments alone. So read it for what it is: a nice, sweet, coming-of-age story set in the South. Don’t expect more.