Sunday, March 22, 2009

The Appeal by John Grisham

If you have not read The Appeal and do not want to be spoiled on the ending, do not read further.

I've read just about every published work by John Grisham, from A Time to Kill to A Painted House. While I believe his earlier work is the best, I still enjoyed reading everything of his. Until, that is, I read The Appeal.

The Appeal is about politics, big business, and how they screw the little guy. It is also more a piece of political propaganda than it is a novel. Grisham viciously portrays big business as consummate evil, and conservatives as soulless lemmings who will vote however their church tells them. The liberals, on the other hand, are perfect: selfless and innocent of any wrongdoing. These themes are repeated throughout the book with nearly every character, making for some of the most boring protagonists and antagonists you'll ever find.

Grisham did manage to keep me turning pages, however, as he can still craft a well-turned phrase. The story progresses forward, and as the pages left dwindled, I began to wonder how on Earth he would wrap it all up satisfactorily. Unfortunately, he doesn't. The ending is probably the worst I've ever read in a professionally published novel.

Let me detour a little. There's an implied agreement between readers and writers:

The reader reads through the book, suspends disbelief (the amount needed depends on the author and reader), follows where the book takes him, and cares about the characters.

The author will create a well-written story with characters the reader cares about, and tells an engrossing story. The ending, while it does not need to be happy, satisfies the reader.

Grisham failed on his end of the implied agreement in The Appeal. The characters feel like wooden impersonations of characters from his previous novels, and the ending made me feel like I had wasted my time reading the preceding pages.

The Appeal does not deliver a happy ending. The bad guys win, the good guys lose. In and of itself, that's not enough to make for a bad ending. It's also a very realistic ending. Again, not enough to ruin it. What really killed the ending, for me at least, is this combination of factors:

1) The bad guys win--completely, totally, and without reservation. Nothing, and I do mean nothing, bad happens to them. They pay absolutely no consequences for their deviousness.

2) The good guys lose--completely, totally, and without reservation. Not one good thing happens to them in this story.

3) Too many loose ends are not tied up. Plot points that were introduced earlier are not resolved, and it almost felt like Grisham just threw the ending together because of a deadline.

I don't mind that the protagonists didn't have a happy ending. Most of what I write, in fact, has fairly nasty endings for them. But I balance this out with the antagonists getting what's coming to them, also. This allows the reader to feel that while things didn't work out perfectly, at least the characters they dislike got their comeuppance.

I hope that Grisham's newest novel, The Associate, is a return to his old ways. I have not had a chance to read it yet, but I expect to do so sometime in the next few months. If it is as disappointing as The Appeal, he might lose my attention.

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