The first John Grisham novel I ever read was The Firm, back in 1992 when I was in high school. It was a kind of fast-paced legal thriller that I’d never encountered before, and since I was entertaining thoughts of becoming a lawyer back then, I loved the book. From that point forward, I read just about every Grisham book I could get my hands on — right up until The Runaway Jury, which I didn’t like very much at all. A few years after that, Grisham moved away from legal thrillers, and I didn’t much like those efforts either.
So when I heard that Grisham was back with the type of novel that made him famous in the first place, I was decided to give him another chance. I checked the audiobook version of The Appeal out from my local library, listened to it over the course of a couple of weeks, and was supremely disappointed with the result. This didn’t seem like the same guy who wrote The Firm, that’s for sure!
Plot summary (with possible spoilers): The novel opens at the very end of a major trial. The jury has reached a verdict, and calls have been placed to the plaintiff, Jeanette Baker, her attorneys Wes and Mary Grace Payton of Payton & Payton, and the army of lawyers for the defendant, Krane Chemical.
Baker had sued Krane Chemical for the wrongful death of her husband and son after they succumbed to cancer as a direct result of imbibing toxic drinking water contaminated by Krane’s illegal dumping practices. The case was long and tiresome, and Wes and Mary Grace had essentially bankrupted their firm in order to get through the trial, but they were confident that they would get a favorable verdict. And they did — to the tune of $3 million in actual damages and $38 million in punitive damages.
The verdict then kicks off a series of events that comprise the bulk of the novel. Carl Trudeau, the billionaire majority stakeholder in the group that owns Krane Chemical, is determined not to pay a dime to Jeanette Baker or the Paytons. As Trudeau watches his net worth shrink by $1 billion (at least on paper), he arranges a special meeting with a “consultant” in Florida who tells him that the surest way to wipe out the original verdict would be to buy a seat on the Mississippi Supreme Court so that when the appeal made its way to the top, the ruling would be overturned.
The novel then shifts gears and focuses on the upcoming election for a seat on the state supreme court. Trudeau’s contact, Tony Zachary, runs a complex network of dummy corporations set up expressly for the purpose of helping get the “right” politicians elected and reelected across the country. The team selects an unknown lawyer named Ron Fisk to challenge incumbent liberal judge Sheila McCarthy, who would almost certainly uphold the verdict against Krane if the case came before her.
The rest of the book then deals with Zachary’s continued efforts to get Ron Fisk to the Supreme Court; Trudeau’s behind-the-scenes machinations to first devalue, then increase the price of Krane stock in order to come out of the situation even richer; and the Paytons’ attempts to remain solvent until a payout on the verdict can be made.
My Reaction: I didn’t like The Appeal one bit, as I felt it came up short in several areas. The biggest problem I had with the novel was the fact that the plot went in so many different directions. At first, I thought it would focus on the Paytons and/or Jeanette Baker. Wrong. Then I thought it would perhaps focus on Carl Trudeau and Krane Chemical. Wrong again. Instead, it focused on the Supreme Court election and Ron Fisk, a character that wasn’t even introduced until about one-third of the way through. By that time, I was already invested in the other storylines, and didn’t want to switch to something completely different.
A second major problem I had with The Appeal was the lack of three-dimensional characters. Because Grisham chose to jump back and forth between the various plots, he didn’t spend enough time developing any of the characters. The Paytons received the most attention early on, which is why it didn’t make sense that Grisham would change things up. Trudeau never materialized into anything more than a caricature of an evil corporate raider, and I couldn’t get a feel for Ron Fisk at all. The result? I didn’t care what happened to any of these characters, which of course took me right out of the story.
If there’s one thing I did like about The Appeal, it was the ending. It would have been far too convenient to have the payout go through, so I’m kind of glad Grisham deliberately went after the non-Hollywood ending. Nevertheless, that wasn’t enough to redeem the book for me.
I realize this novel is Grisham’s way of saying that state supreme court justices shouldn’t be elected, and he probably has a good point. However, that doesn’t necessarily make for an exciting story; it certainly didn’t in this instance.
Overall, I was quite disappointed with The Appeal. Has Grisham lost his touch or am I just expecting too much out of him?