My rating: 2 of 5 stars
I've been a fan of John Grisham for a while. I had no business reading The Client at 12 and The Pelican Brief at 14, but I did and I consumed every word of them so quickly it was almost as if I was afraid if I didn't read them immediately the words would disappear and the story would be gone forever. I still count The Pelican Brief as one of my go-to favorites to re-read. Unfortunately, my initial reading of The Confession, has forced me to reconsider whether I actually still think Grisham is worth the praise, or if, perhaps I've been overly-kind to him as a result of nostalgia.
To me, The Confession is not as good as either of the two mentioned above, and there are several reasons for that impression. While it's probably always been the case that Grisham certainly tends to stick with the things he feels most comfortable writing about (law, racism, politics, religion, crime) much of Grisham's previous work didn't seem to frame it's story as a slave to it's inspiration. What I mean is that although somewhat predictable, a lot of the previous work felt somewhat organic, in the sense that the story came first. That doesn't feel like the case to me here. In The Confession, Grisham's agenda is abundantly clear, re-iterated over and over again to literally drum it into your head (if you read the book, you'll know why I chose the verb 'drum' there) and that notion of writing around a specific idea truly seems to cause the characters, and the story, to fall flat more often than not. It's abundantly clear that the death penalty is an issue close to Grisham's heart and while the passion is clear, it almost felt that it was written without hesitation, resulting in some sloppy moments. The Confession felt to me like a "best of Grisham" combined with an op-ed piece. Attempting to take the death penalty and (sorry to employ the word again, but it's necesary) literally turn it into a black and white issue seems counter-productive to me. It's overtly obvious, and the sour note that the end hits, while perhaps sometimes realistic, almost nullified the book and the argument for me. The very end felt like a great, big literary "well what more can I say" complete with a throwing up of your hands in a sign of resignation.
Grisham's voice is so overly present that it sometimes seems to drown out that of the characters. While it is certainly a book dealing with a real-life dilemma, and I'm sure, based on some real life accounts, the fact is, this is being sold as a work of fiction. Within that parameter, the character is still the most important, and while there is, what seems to me, an over-abundance of characters, they're all held at arm's length. Grisham often reverts to the third person, never really allowing the reader to get too close. Everything happens in such a whirlwind of time that it's difficult to connect with any of them. The stereotypes are surprising for a novel published in 2010, but perhaps that's just because I've never lived in Texas.
I do have to say though, that the second part of the novel "The Punishment" really did get the pages turning and I found, even as I was holding out my own hope, I was both surprised and, in an odd way, impressed by Grisham's decision about how the story of Donte Drumm was concluded. Grisham did surprise me there, and yet it worked better than any alternative. If only the third part of the novel, "The Exoneration" hadn't become so jumbled at the end that it felt kind of like watching "The Return of the King". If you haven't seen that movie a) Why haven't you?! and b) it has several different "endings" before the ultimate ending, quick wrap-ups that show what each character is up to, but none of which are quite as fulfilling as the previous 500 or so minutes in which the characters have really been shelled out. It felt like I was reading a laundry list of "where are they now?"
I would never say a John Grisham novel was bad, maybe I COULD never say one of them was "bad" but this one certainly seemed the least cohesive to me, at least in a while. Usually the entertainment factor is so high that it overrides any formulaic or literary issues I have, but with this one I felt like I could also constantly hear my own head uttering objections, not to the statements necessarily, but just to the way they were delivered. It's a solid enough outline, with an important discussion at the heart of it, and hopefully it does help to open a dialogue, at least among those who have read the book, but I can't put it at the top of my Grisham list. It's certainly worth borrowing from the library or from a friend though and seeing how you feel about it.
View all my reviews