The novel is in its first half sweet without being cloying--Jean Louise Finch, 26 years old, living in New York, makes her fifth annual return to Maycomb to see her ailing father Atticus. He's icing from severe rheumatoid arthritis, and some days he's in such pain, he needs his sister (Aunt Alexandra, as starchy as in To Kill a Mockingbird, has, rather surprisingly, spared Jean Louise moving back home by moving in herself with Atticus) to help him dress. His brother, Dr. Jack, has fashioned specially large-handles utensils to help Atticus eat.
Jem has been dead for two years.
It's the characters you know, for the most part--we get a visit from Dill in a flashback, even--and they're mostly the same.
Certainly in that sunlit first half, with flashbacks to Scout and Jem and Dill playing together, Uncle Jack being amusing, and Atticus facing disability and mortality pretty much as you'd expect him to.
--And then Harper Lee shatters the cozy little world of Maycomb. Jean Louise stumbles on a racist pamphlet among her father's books and papers, and blames Aunt Alexandra for it. Aunt Alexandra holds her tongue, but is innocent. Jean Louise follows her father to an unusual gathering in the courthouse--the same place where he heroically defended Tom Robinson--and finds that he's a leader of the Maycomb Citizen's Council.
It hits Scout hard, and the reader, too. Lee has done such a grand job of evoking the Atticus that lives in our hearts (extraordinary, really, because Go Set a Watchman was written before Mockingbird) that we are hit as hard as Scout.
I won't spoil the book for you; the first half has all the magic of the innocent comic scenes in Mockingbird, and yet virtually no overlap. The Robinson trial is portrayed in a quick two pages, and is less heroic, and less tragic than in the first-published book.
The "back 9" of the book depicts Jean Louise's reaction, her anger and sense of betrayal. She finds an unlikely ally, has a wrenching confrontation with her father, and one with her uncle.
Scout dies, but Jean Louise lives.
Any more, and I'll end up spoiling the book.
But let me say, if Mockingbird is important to you, read this book.
Harper Lee is saying something important about racism (oh, Calpurnia!), about growing up, about fathers and daughters--and about human frailty.
It is an extraordinary achievement, even though you can see the seams, as the editorial process led to the abandonment of Watchman and the creation of Mockingbird--one critical scene is too talky, though most of the talk is good talk. Most of it.
Atticus is not, at the end of the book, a hero. He's a man. Flawed, loving, wrong-headed, passionately just-- a mass of contradictions.
Like many of us. I'm reminded of my favorite passage from C.P. Snow, with his protagonist, Lewis Eliot, engaged in a debate with a young Nazi official in 1938:
"No one is fit to be trusted with power," I said..."No one. I should not like to see any group of men in charge--not me or my friends or anyone else. Any man who has lived at all knows the follies and wickedness he's capable of. If he does not know it, he is not fit to govern others. And if he does know it, he knows also that neither he nor any man ought to be allowed to decide a single human fate, I am not speaking of you specially, you understand; I should say exactly the same of myself."Atticus, in either novel, would, I think, understand and approve.
Our eyes met. I was certain, as one can be certain in a duel across the table, that for the first time he took me seriously.
"You do not think highly of men, Mr. Eliot."
"I am one."