a review of CAMINO ISLAND by John Grisham

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I am a massive John Grisham fan. I read everything he writes. I am all legal thriller, all the time! And his are THE best. Except I have never read A PAINTED HOUSE. But I have read his other non-legal, non-thriller fiction. CALICO JOE is one of my favorite books.

I have seen every Grisham movie. And I still think the book is better, but the movies are just fine, too.

So just for fun I am going to take a stab at reviewing his novel, CAMINO ISLAND, currently #1 on the LA Times Bestsellers List.

CAMINO ISLAND centers on a writer, unsatisfied artistically and unsuccessful economically. She finds herself recruited by a high level, independent, insurance investigator for a sting operation targeting an eccentric bookseller on Camino, Island, FL. He is suspected of trafficking in the rare stolen manuscripts of F. Scott Fitzgerald. The writer is perfect choice as she just happens to be deep in debt AND writers’ block, out of a job, and the owner of family property on Camino Island filled with memories of happier times.

Of course, the up and down life of a writer is a story not unfamiliar to me in the time I have spent with the many independent authors with whom I work. This novel is particularly appropriate for review here on STORIES FROM STORYTELLER because of the bookseller element. The world of the independent bookstore in today’s market as described here is so vivid and telling. And the arc of the character, the seller and possible thief, is also captivating. How he came to be in a business that apparently no one in their right mind should enter, is fascinating.

That is Grisham’s trademark – his detailed description. He depicts his characters, paints his scenes, in a lawyer-like way. Unemotional, with step-by-step development, no stone under-described. It makes one feel as if we are assessing or viewing or voyeuring (if that’s a word), dispassionately, calculatingly. The characters are dispassionate themselves. Taking in all the detail, registering very little emotion or opinion.

This might be what separates good Grisham from great Grisham. The moment at which in his creation that Grisham does or doesn’t allow his characters the emotional leap into their story, and therefore his audience’s emotional leap with them into their world.

For that choice, CAMINO ISLAND falls into the former – it is good Grisham. Even when the full hand is played we do not see the commitment of a Nicholas Easter as in The Runaway Jury or the tipping of the scale that sends Reggie Love over the edge to defend The Client, young Mark Sway. Here the characters remain outside themselves and outside the story. And while charming and interesting, we don’t care enough.

Plot points go unplumbed – another difference between good and great Grisham.

Certainly a number are available and used for red herrings that might just trip up our heroine – the days of Yore with the Grandmother who owned the cottage on Camino Island, her questionable death, the alcoholic author who leaves the party under the influence. These potentially rich subplots wind up merely that – diversions to keep us from figuring out the story.

To the novel’s credit, I did not ‘figure it out.’ At the end of the day I enjoyed this novel a great deal. I stayed up late. I kept reading even after I knew I should out the lights. I never got the pay off that I did from The Pelican Brief or The Rainmaker. There was no righteous indignation in the telling of this tale. But I kept hoping. And amazingly, and even after everything I’ve written here, CAMINO ISLAND did not disappoint.

Has Grisham grown tired? Cynical? Bored? Have his expectations to turn out a novel every year changed the hope with which he approaches each story?

I don’t know. Perhaps John Grisham struggles, too.

The challenge for Grisham, and any writer that has been great is the expectation of their readers to measure up every time. We want the thrill again. We want the rest of the world to stop around us; the frantic turn of the page as the black scratching on white paper become the epic stories played out on the dome of our imaginations. We want to let out that deep exhale at the end, sad the story is over. It is a demanding audience to please – one’s biggest fans. “Thrill me once again, dammit. You did it before.” And yet demand it they do. And disappointed they are when they don’t get it. I know readers who gave up on Irving after PIGGY SNEED. Which means they missed UNTIL I FIND YOU, IN ONE PERSON, and the book that changed my life, A WIDOW FOR ONE YEAR. What a shame!

It is hard to be great every – single – time. And so I maintain hope. It is because of Nicholas Easter and Reggie Love and Darby Shaw and Jake Brigance that I do. Grisham’s good is very good. Of the forty novels he has written far more are great than good.

I will continue to hope for, but not expect, the great.

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2 thoughts on “a review of CAMINO ISLAND by John Grisham

  1. It happens. I think these powerful best selling authors are stuck in a corner. After a while it seems to get formulaic and the joy of creating the story dries up. Yeah, I think that’s when a step back, long vacation, or a year or two away from the craft is necessary, or it is just lost.

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