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Onyx reviews: A Painted House by John Grisham

Before grabbing A Painted House from the bookstore, readers should realize that they are not getting a typical Grisham novel. It is not the page-turner that Grisham readers, who often pick up his books to pas the time on long flights, have come to expect. There's not a single lawyer—living or dead -- between these covers.

The novel was first released as a serial last year in the bimonthly The Oxford American, of which Grisham is the self-described "figurehead" publisher. Grisham's story boosted subscriptions to this Southern literary magazine by a factor of five. The hardcover release repackages the installments with only minor changes in the text. Missing are a rushed epilog and the magazine illustrations, which enhanced the book's mood.

A Painted House, set in rural Arkansas in 1952 and told from the viewpoint of a seven-year-old Luke Chandler, recounts the events of a typical summer for his family, who live by the cotton crop. Handling the harvest is too big a job for the family, so they rely on the help of itinerant laborers. These come in two varieties: the Mexicans and the hill people. For the duration of the harvest, the Chandlers host an unruly assortment of strangers. The hill people set up camp in the front yard, the Mexicans take over the barn. There is an uneasy tension among the three groups, but ultimately they are all there for the same reason: to make money from cotton.

There is no fast-paced action here. No wild chases through busy skyscrapers, no complex plots by renegade lawyers, no life-or-death showdowns in the final chapter. This is a Southern novel and in the heat of the summer sun, things move slowly. It's a bit like watching paint dry. The title of the book derives from the fact that one of the hill people, a handicapped boy named Trot, passes the summer by applying the first-ever coat of paint to the Chandler house. Living in a painted house is a sign of prestige.

The tension in this novel is created by more mundane conflicts than cabals and crooked lawyers. The threat of rain ruining the crop, the fate of a family member fighting in Korea, illicit relationships among the hired help, and trouble caused by dangerous and unruly workers, these are the things that drive the story.

It is also a book about listening to baseball games on the front porch on a hot evening, the sounds of the summer night, the smells of a steady stream of home-cooked meals, weekly trips into town, youthful awakenings and backbreaking work.

The novel is semi-autobiographical. Grisham moved the story back a decade so that he could include the Korean War, but he did spend the first seven years of his life on a cotton farm with a family somewhat like the Chandler clan. (Grisham has four siblings; Luke Chandler is an only child.)

Fans of Grisham's previous novels may feel like they've come to a screeching halt in the pages of this book. Grisham seems to have literary aspirations, but it is not clear that has achieved them. Many of the secondary characters are generic; the Mexican laborers are little more than a faceless group. The low-key drama of Luke's life, his angst, his terrors when he becomes privy to secrets that he doesn't know how to handle, are entertaining, but the change of pace may catch Grisham's fans by surprise. This is a nice book, full of mood and strong sensory images, but it is not a great book. With its meandering, slow pace, readers may be in danger of drifting off in the hot summer sun.

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