I haven’t marked spoilers in this review because this isn’t a book that relies on plot, but I do discuss the things that happen at the end, so avoid this review if you would prefer not to hear about them before reading!
I want to start this review by saying that I think it’s very important not to view this book as a sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird. On the surface it might seem like one, and that was how it was marketed, but that’s because what it really is is a look at what that book could have been. It was written first and contains Harper Lee’s original plan for the characters and the plot. In fact, the case from Mockingbird is even mentioned a couple of times, the first of which makes it clear that there was a different outcome than the one we see in Harper Lee’s first book, so Go Set a Watchman is set in its own distinct universe. The reason it is so important to understand this is because most of the complaints that I’ve seen about this book involve the fact that Atticus is out of character. If one expects him to be the same as in Mockingbird, then this is indeed true. However, I am viewing Watchman as its own work which also happens to give us some insight into what a different work could have been, and I urge everyone else to do the same.
Go Set a Watchman is primarily about a young woman being confronted with the racism of the people she loves. It doesn’t contain any real plot beyond that, instead focusing on characters and relationships. When a book does this, it’s vital that these are both likeable and believable and, thankfully, they were. Firstly, I absolutely adore Jean Louise. She is just as one might imagine her to be. She’s prickly and tomboyish, yet intelligent and thoughtful and caring. She’s both mature and very naïve, which is somewhat the point of the story. I also love the way her relationships with all of the other characters are drawn. Aunt Alexandra is unbearable at times, but does truly want the best for her niece. Generally this is the case with all of the characters in the book. They are all misguided in some way or other (and as the book reaches its climax, it becomes clear how), but have their hearts in the right places even if their views are abhorrent to both the reader and Jean Louise herself. I also loved the writing style employed by Harper Lee. It seemed to flow beautifully and made the book very easy to read.
One of the flaws of this book, however, is the way it assumes an understanding of American politics in the 1950s. I felt quite lost when the climax of the book assumed knowledge of what the Tenth Amendment was and what decisions had been made by the Supreme Court shortly before. This should have been picked up in the editing stages, but I doubt Harper Lee was in a good enough state by the time of its publication to do any proper revisions. However, I had google and my father at my disposal for explanatory purposes, though many might not be so fortunate.
I also didn’t agree with all of the conclusions made. I liked the idea that Jean Louise had to start seeing her father as a fallible human being rather than the epitome of goodness, so that she could fully become her own person. I also liked Uncle Jack’s suggestion that she should be around the people she disagreed with in order to grow herself and to help change things. However, I can’t say I completely agree with the conclusion that one should live and let live with white supremacy. While it’s made clear that this doesn’t include actual harm being caused to people, I’m still very uncomfortable with the conclusion that people should be allowed to spout hateful misinformation.
In the end, this was a book not just about race, but about family and one’s roots. I can see why Harper Lee was encouraged to write To Kill a Mockingbird instead; the childhood flashbacks were some of the best parts, and the trial it holds is so incredibly intriguing. However, Go Set a Watchman was still a thoroughly enjoyable book and I, for one, am very glad to have read it.