Review: John Grisham – The Appeal

The Appeal
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Living in China, I’m rather landed with books I can beg or borrow from others, which tends to make my reading matter rather too varied.

Grisham is someone I never would have bothered with. Now I’ve had him (effectively) foisted upon me, I’m not sure I’ll queue for his work, but still, this was a very worthwhile and enjoyable read.

The story arc, on the surface, is unappealing, (if you’ll pardon the pun). A husband-and-wife legal team succeed in a test case over a major corporation’s dumping of carcinogens, but now it must go to appeal. The CEO of the corporation, knowing that the local judiciary tends to be reasonable, (I don’t think even the CEO would argue otherwise), requires the decks to be stacked in his favour in order for him to win the appeal. Duly, through an election to the judiciary which he hires others to engineer, the decks are indeed stacked.

Somehow, though, this unappetising scenario is made a page-turner in its twisting and turning and through a measure of sympathy with the characters he portrays… but herein lies that lost star. It is only a measure.

My preference is for work where the bad guys have ameliorating characteristics, the good guys their weaknesses and, ideally, work where the boundaries become so blurred that the cause itself may be fairly blatantly good, (or bad), but those for and against it tend to blur. The good guys here are a little too good. The bad guys have odd foibles added in to up the ‘bad guy’ image brought about by simple greed and ruthlessness. (Towards the end, a ‘bad’ senator pops up again, and Grisham can’t stop himself adding the throwaway line that before he disappears out of town again, he spends a bit of time with a mistress he has conveniently stashed away there).

WARNING – SPOILERS BELOW

And yet there is one bad guy, or at least one who falls in with the bad guys, who is portrayed as the decent guys are portrayed, along with considerably more attention given to one of his children that is given to the children of the husband-and-wife lawyers we may consider to be the main protagonists. This is heavy, careless signalling. There’s a Hobbit sitting in the Orc camp, his presence so blatant we know it has to mean something; and, moreover, that his son is going to have a lot to do with it.

Thus the conclusion is signalled. The son himself becomes hurt, we know for life, and a promising future is lost to him. Legal action that should be taken in the wake of this is obvious, but it’s precisely the kind of legal action he knows he’s not been elected to the bench to uphold. How can he, then, instigate it?

At this point an unsatisfactory ending is signalled – a change of heart – and we know how things must turn out, only they do not. Grisham sticks with realism. In the corporate world the good guys don’t win, the CEOs win, and they win big… and that is what indeed happens… not through any grand final twist to the plot, merely by the expedient of having the new judge chicken out both on a lawsuit on behalf of his son, and on refusing to cast the vote that overturns the original verdict.

It’s clear where Grisham’s politics lie, and my own politics – though a Brit, and our issues are different – mirror his; but I do so wish those on-side in the USA would present the case with rather more realism. I’m sure there are nice CEOs out there and bastards living in trailer parks. We could have done with a bit more grey there. The politics is real. The issues are real. The arguments for them to be addressed – implicit throughout this work – suffer when the characterisation fits better with fantasy than with reality, thereby undermining the message. Not only that, but the work itself suffers.

An enjoyable read, then… but once more I could wish for Goodreads to provide half-stars so I could have rated this a three-and-a-half. The enjoyment was rather undermined by the characterisation.


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