I’ve read quite a few John Grisham legal thrillers over the years. At their best, they’re tightly constructed, entertaining, compulsive page-turners you can’t put down. At their worst, they’re… well like this dud of a book.
It starts off rather promisingly. Our protagonist is Samantha Kofer, a young associate working in commercial real estate who loses her job at New York’s massive law firm after the financial crash of 2008. With hundreds of lawyers left unemployable, even non-paying internship positions are hotly contested, but eventually Samantha finds a pro bono opportunity in small-town Appalachia, where she’s to provide free legal aid to the downtrodden. There she meets Donovan Gray, a fearless lawyer crusading against the Big Coal, companies whose strip mining practices defile the land and poison the local population. Oh and he’s young and handsome too, though an estranged wife and kid put a damper on a potential fling.
For the first quarter I was happy for the novel to take it slow with setting up Samantha’s new environment: the poor coal mining town of Brady, the all-female staff at the Mountain Legal Aid Clinic, the appalling injustices of the coal companies and so on. Then at the 200-page mark, I realised that any kind of solid plot was still nowhere to be seen and the book was still busy meandering.
As it turned out, the big central question of the novel really was, what kind of lawyer will Samantha choose to be: will she go back to pushing paper at the big city firm, or will she stay to fight for the voiceless underdog? The big problem is that Samantha is not a very interesting character, and the compelling environmental and social issues don’t benefit from the perspective of a detached self-centred outsider. In fact Samantha comes off as a wishy-washy fence-sitter in all aspects of her life, personal and professional, and has no real passion for anything. If Grisham intended this as an “issue” novel, maybe it should have been driven by a main character who is involved and actually gives a shit, rather than a fish-out-of-water character who is often described as just plain bored. In the absence of strong plot and suspense (despite the novel’s attempt to inject some with a “shocking” development two-thirds in), dud protagonist and way too much pointless filler, Gray Mountain is the least entertaining Grisham novel I’ve read.