Book Review for Higher Hope by Robert Whitlow
On the cover of the book, there is a quote from WORLD Magazine that says “Writes in the style of John Grisham, combining compelling legal and ethical plotlines… but Whitlow has explicit spiritual themes.”
First of all, WORLD Magazine obviously never read John Grisham. Maybe WORLD Magazine read the back of a John Grisham novel and deduced that why yes, this is a book about legal stuff…. Therefore it will be perfectly applicably comparable to any other book about legal stuff. I know this because Whitlow and Grisham have only a few things in common: they both write about legal stuff involving young lawyers and they write based in the South. Other than that? Nope, not so much.
Also, the second part about Whitlow having “explicit spiritual themes” is true… but totally irrelevant. Well, okay, irrelevant in matters of if this book is good, if the characters are compelling, if it is an enjoyable read, if you would recommend it to a friend… because all those things are going to be in or not be in a book with or without ‘explicit spiritual themes’ and I, for one, would like to think that we read books because we enjoy the plot and the characters not because the characters and the author happen to believe in the same spiritual superstitions that we do.
Maybe that’s just me.
Let me put it out there front and center. I don’t agree with the faith or value system of the main character (Tami) in regards to her political views, her gender relations views, her religious views.
But, again, all that stuff is irrelevant because had the book been written well it wouldn’t have mattered. In fact, it still doesn’t matter I just know someone out there is going to say I am picking on this book because I don’t agree with her religious beliefs and since the book is seeped in her religious beliefs, I can’t be a fair judge.
So, let’s take out the religious part. Let’s just look at it in terms of actual literary devices such as narrative devices, narrative flow, character development and motivations. Is the book good based on these criteria?
A resounding No.
Narrative flow is a staple of novels. It is what ties the story together, giving us the information we need to follow along. It is the pacing, the structure of the book and it employs narrative devices like flashbacks, foreshadowing, symbolism, point of view, etc. In this case the narrative flow was constantly (read: practically every other chapter) interrupted by a switch in point of view.
We would have a chapter written in the first person (“I walked down the hall. I felt dizzy with anticipation.”)* from the main character Tami’s point of view. This worked well enough; as readers we perched ourselves in her head and watched the story unfold with all her impressions, thoughts, and emotions laid out before us. She took her place as our protagonist.
Then the next chapter would jolt us out of our comfortable first person view and thrust us into not only a different character’s view… but into the third person omniscient point of view. Suddenly it was “She (not Tami, a different she) sat in her rocking chair and thought about her life. She was tired.”* The other she, Sister Dabny, is not our protagonist but neither is she the antagonist… and she isn’t even a symbolic foil for Tami, she is just another important character.
Now, an intentional play with the narrative structure like this could have worked if there had been a pay off at the end. The switch between two different characters can be done, if done right,,,,, perhaps by being in first person for both so that the story can run on parallel tracks telling the same story from two different sides… which can be engaging. But in this case because we got so much more emotion and general character development (such as it was) in Tami’s case, the fact that we switch to third person for the competing story of Sister Dabny actually stifles the narrative flow taking us out of the story and leaving us bitter and unsettled. At the climax of the book we stay in Tami’s head and then don’t ever go back to Sister Dabny throwing the idea of parallel structure out the window and leaving us thinking Whitlow simply either couldn’t make up his mind or simple didn’t care.
The other thing that hurts this book is the lack of decent character development. Had the story been about a “normal” young lawyer, the author could have gotten away with a bit of sketchiness on the development side of things, counting on our general knowledge of young women raised in the south and such to cover any gaping holes in who she is. But Tami is special… she has this huge aspect of her personality that is driven by a very unique and very not at all mainstream religion that permeates her psyche and dictates her thoughts, feelings, actions. Yet it is never really explained to the reader. We follow her story getting bits and pieces of how her beliefs affect her and the world through her eyes but her actual motivations for believing what she does and how that translates through her actions is lacking.
And then Whitlow breaks his own rules in regards to Tami’s faith.
We have hundreds of pages preaching to us about what she will and will not do because of her belief system… but then there are two examples of her acting so out of character that we either think Whitlow went out to lunch one day and forgot who Tami is or that he was just lazy enough to think he could get away with having her do actions extremely out of character and hope his readers were lazy enough to not notice. The infractions are small enough that they could have gone unnoticed in any other character, but in Tami’s case we spend so much of the book getting beat down by the rigidness with which she lives her life that these moments stand out in sharp relief.
Again, had this been in some way obviously intentional, such as a way of showing the reader that Tami’s beliefs are crumbling or that she is changing; that could have saved it. But there is absolutely no indication of either thing and we are left scratching out heads and being generally frustrated.
And then we have the climax. Or rather, we get about half of the climax. The story focuses on a few things: a case Tami’s firm is bringing against Sister Dabny, Tami’s romantic entanglement with two young (highly unbelievable) men, and Tami’s decision about her career path. Only one of these story lines is wrapped up (and not in a very satisfying manner either) leaving the other two just out there… twitching and demanding attention.
Because of course there is a sequel to Higher Hope, the final page of the book tells us, called Deeper Water and if we really want to know what happens to Tami, if 413 pages wasn’t enough we can go out and buy it!
I think I’ll pass.
Feel free to buy, read, and agree/disagree with me. Oh, and if you have a grandmother like mine, this book might be the perfect birthday gift.
*Not actual lines from the book