Publisher: Doubleday (384 p)
US Release Date: October 21, 2014
My Rating: 3/5 stars
John Grisham’s latest novel, Gray Mountain, a “social” or “issue” novel, is a departure from his legal thrillers and dramas that have resonated with readers for almost 25 years. I’m a big Grisham fan. I generally admire his work—even some of his less critically acclaimed works such as The Broker.
In Gray Mountain, the issue is Big Coal's atrocities in Appalachia. Through a method known as strip mining, coal companies rip the tops off hundreds of mountains in the region to get at coal layers below, without regard to the catastrophe caused to the local ecosystem, wildlife and human population. Supporters of the coal companies point to the thousands of jobs the industry creates in this economically depressed area.
We are introduced to Samantha Kofer, a young associate in the commercial real estate division of a massive New York law firm, who has spent the past three years poring over contracts. Enter the financial crash of 2008 and Samantha is let go. She finds an unpaid internship in a legal aid clinic in Brady, Virginia, while waiting to be re-hired by Big Law. Samantha soon meets a handsome and confident attorney taking on Big Coal and she is drawn into his quest.
Regardless of Gray Mountain’s genre, the basics should still apply.
I found the characters generally shallow. At times I felt like I was reading a detailed version of different lawyers’ DayTimers—office, meeting, home, dinner, repeat.
The story presented insufficient conflict and no noticeable plot twists. The ending was unsatisfying and the story moves along only slightly faster than a snail’s pace. While it is acceptable to build suspense using a variety of unconventional techniques, such was all but absent here. I kept asking, “Is anything gonna happen?” In the end, I was left with a somewhat accurate and quasi-entertaining account of coal mining methods in Virginia and an expose of the lives of litigators in a small town legal aid clinic—interesting, but more appropriate for feature pieces in a newspaper or magazine.
The writing is tight, polished and crisp—including the dialogue, which is relevant and, as such, Gray Mountain is recommended for students of the craft. However, don’t expect a page-turning thriller or mystery novel with a noticeable crescendo of suspense. For this, I would recommend rereading The Broker.