Short, lightweight books of little consequence are often called “beach novels”, perhaps owing to their binding (usually paperback) and completely disposable upon completion; sausage-factory fiction with a dash of Coney Island flair. With John Grisham’s 30th novel Camino Island, it appears the writer most associated with fictional legal thrillers has finally written his very own beach-friendly novel. Also, there’s nary an attorney to be found here. No spoilers, but when a major character suggests another “should be a lawyer”, the reply is simple and to the point. “I can’t think of anything worse.”
True, it’s not his first non-legal effort (hello, A Painted House, plus all those Boone books), but with nearly 30 years – and just as many novels – under his belt, you’ll indulge the man’s desire to change things up a bit.
Things kick off strongly enough with an exciting and technologically engaging theft of true literary gold: the original, handwritten manuscripts of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s catalog: This Side of Paradise, The Beautiful and Damned, Tender Is the Night, The Last Tycoon and, of course, The Great Gatsby, from the Firestone Library at Princeton University. Exciting!
From here we’re introduced to Bruce Cable, a handsome chance-taking type who transformed a sizable inheritance into Bay Books, an enviable local bookstore empire, surrounding himself with an unusually large literary circle of local and visiting writers from all walks of life and genres. With the love of his life, Noelle Bonnet, an antiques dealer and occasional writer herself, by his side the couple have made good on Camino Island, a small ten-mile beach in Florida on the fictional island “just north of Jacksonville.” It’s here where everything and anything was on the table – and I do mean everything.
But now we need a heroine, and that would be Mercer Mann, a young author who may have already peaked with her first novel, and now finds herself struggling teaching part-time to make ends meet. She’s cut from a modern cloth of literary interests, with a preference for female writers, preferably those still alive. “I try to avoid old dead white men.”
With her meager teaching contract expiring, Mercer’s only source of income was drying up, and those pricey student loans weren’t going to pay for themselves. In comes the mysterious Elaine Shelby, the mysterious and handsome older woman offering to make everything better with a dream proposition: $100,000 cash and complete erasure of those student loans. Her only obligations would be to take residence in her beloved (and now deceased) grandmother’s beachfront cottage and finish writing her long-neglected second novel. Oh, and to keep tabs and get info on Bruce Cable, the likely recipient of the stolen Fitzgerald manuscripts.
Honestly, she’s among the least compelling heroines in Grisham’s oeuvre, with a lack of clarity in her actions and little personality worth remembering. Judging by her curious behavior later in the book, she seems prone to Stockholm Syndrome. We also keep hearing what a great writer she is, and how anticipated her next book will be. Yet nothing she does or expresses seems to suggest any of this is true. Ultimately, she’s best thought of as our surrogate, fly-on-the-wall navigator through this topsy-turvy world of books and the characters who create them. With this explainer in mind, it makes much of the childlike innocence (and ignorance) of her actions more tolerable in the long run.
What follows is a light, breezy mystery caper that often feels like two disconnected stories grafted onto one another, with about as much success as it sounds. Despite a promising start the entire subplot about stolen manuscripts feels largely abandoned about midway through, with any resolution more a courtesy than clever wrap-up. Much of its bloated middle comes dangerously close to Merchant Ivory romance at best, with vapid excuses given for bad decisions and plenty of PG-13 trysting. At worst, it’s a meh parody of the ambiance of the books Grisham is talking about. Truth be told, whatever the heck you call it, the result is far more enjoyable than last year’s procedure-laden The Whistler.
Camino Island is its best when talking shop, in this case books. Not ‘literature’, mind you (that would cause its intended audience’s eyeballs to glaze over like day-old donuts), but the world of books themselves. Paper, printed, and rapidly aging books. More than anything, it reads like Grisham’s love letter to bibliophiles, and all those who labor away in the business trying to mine gold from letters. The best parts come by way of literary gossip, of course, much of which will be catnip to those engrossed in the and writers.
See how easily local gossip hounds and merrymaking couple Myra Beckwith and Leigh Trane – easily the best and more interesting characters here – transpose from the legendary Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. They’d given up trying to survive writing historical fiction and “literary shit”, insteading moving over to cheap smut and tawdry romance. “We cranked out a hundred books under a dozen names and couldn’t write ’em fast enough.”, says Myra. “The dirtier the better. You should try one. Pure filth.”
Myra’s a hoot; if we’re casting the movie she’s the kind of matriarchal role Kathy Bates was born to play (and already did, if you count Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris).
It’s all in good fun, though, as Grisham’s good-natured jabs at his own profession hit with the intensity of a feather. Even Grisham’s own fans aren’t spared the satire. Take the could-be, would-be villain bookshop owner Bruce Cable – he’s read more than anyone, claims to know the business inside out, to the point he’s even offering structural advice to up-and-coming writers. And yet… he’s not a writer, but the ultimate book fanboy, always on the outside looking in.
Plus, sex sells, even historically fictionalized sex, as when a preposterously silly fictional affair between Ernest Hemingway and Zelda Fitzgerald is suggested as a sure-fire best-seller. I totally get what Grisham’s poking at here; next time you’re in a decent bookstore, library, or clicking through author biographies and memoirs, see how many sensationalized, sex-driven ones outnumber the vanilla.
Honestly, this doesn’t sound like a Grisham that’s hellbent to educate or change the world. Rather, he almost sounds – gasp! – relaxed, perhaps enjoying his place in the world (and the world of fiction novels). Given how the routine of book tours factors in Camino Island I wasn’t surprised when Wiki informed me Grisham made “his first extensive book tour in 25 years to publicize the book.”
Camino Island isn’t great, or even revolutionary Grisham, whatever its author’s intentions to shake things up to write outside his comfort zone. That said, it’s fun disposable fiction that shouldn’t take more than a few sunny sessions in the shade to finish before moving on with the rest of your vacation. It’s not quite the legal thriller fans might’ve expected, and the supposed romance is too lukewarm to spike anyone’s heartbeat. And yet, there’s a breezy charm and nonchalance here that’s unmistakably attractive.