Really, the bleakest reason that Go Set A Watchman has disappointed readers? That no one wants to believe the beloved characters of childhood could be anything but exemplars of everything good. That, and the unwarranted hype that accompanied its long labor and birth.
To herald the coming of a sequel is to ready a waiting audience for a treat of the same magnitude. But here, because the grownups entranced by To Kill A Mockingbird when they were middle-schoolers idealized Atticus Finch, agonized over Jem, and thought Scout was both cute and astute, disappointment was practically guaranteed.
Atticus not perfect? Cal not immeasurable loving? The wonderul courtroom arguments fraught with what was not said along with what was said? And Scout not sure at all that she wants what Henry seems to offer now that she is 26, living in The City, and home on vacation? These just don’t suit what readers in general might expect from either a sequel or prequel.
But that is no reason not to see what is there beneath a glossy surface, as Jean Louise Finch, who no longer is just Scout even to herself, already knows when she comes home. It is the readers and her now older but not much wiser intimates who find that that side of her creates friction and alters their expectations of and for her.
The thing is, even if readers don’t ever revisit their own childhoods—writers, psychotherapists, artists of all kinds and literature professors are notably good at it, but most people just move on and hope for the best—the truths about those years exist nonetheless, encased in a special kind of amber. The ripples from those years and their events don’t go away because no one created a gem from it or tried to free the insects stuck inside.
Those ripples make everyone in the book who they are now, not just taller clones of who they were back in the day. If the large and varied audience for this book had been told that in the hype that preceded publication, readers would have been just as happy to receive the book and honor its author.
Even middle-schoolers know that their parents and friends aren’t always right or good, but that according to their own lights, they try to do their best. And that’s what the title is about, too. The back cover tells us, as if we couldn’t figure it out by ourselves, that “Every man’s island, Jean Louise, every man’s watchman, is his conscience.” If it is read after reading “To Kill A Mockingbird,” this novel makes that message pretty clear.