Reviewed by Viviana I. Vasiu
by John Grisham
2014, Hardcover: 384 pages, ISBN-13: 978-0385537148
After failing to fully represent strong female characters in his previous novels, Grisham publishes Gray Mountain in 2014 which features his only female heroine since publishing The Pelican Brief in the early 1990’s. Grisham employs several new strategies that constitute his most meaningful strides towards lessening prejudice against women and giving them a strong status in the legal field as is true nowadays in attempting to create a strong novel with a strong heroine: nearly no objectification towards women, objectification of men, and verbalized desire to change their status quo and lessen objectification. However, his old strategies of making the female character incredibly passive, lacking most of the traits that make a heroine strong as Darby, and being mostly used as aid, greatly undermine Samantha Kofer’s status of heroine and confirm Grisham’s failure in creating a strong heroine.
Grisham’s Gray Mountain novel takes us from the land of extreme objectification to nearly none. Yes, Grisham has successfully changed how he treats women regarding male gaze for the first time in his writing career. In fact, whereas objectification used to happen at least every few pages repeatedly towards the same female character, the first physical trait towards a woman is only mentioned on page 66:
A shapely brunette sauntered by in a short skirt and Marshall instinctively gawked and stopped chewing for a second…
Samantha: ‘You’re sixty years old and she’s about my age. When will you ever stop looking?’
Marshall: ‘You just don’t understand men, Samantha. Looking is automatic and harmless. We all look. Come on.’
S: ‘So you can’t help it?’
Marshall: ‘No’ (66-67).
Even though there is obviously male gaze occurring, in this instance the descriptions and emphasis on the female character are more tame than what we are used to seeing in Grisham’s novels. However, Grisham again tries to incorporate the excuse of men not being able to help looking at beautiful women and objectifying them when the occasion arises. He continues the trend of taming down the objectification levels and high level of description of women, by only including statements such “a slender brunette” and “glanced at her legs as he settled in behind his desk” (174-243). In fact, the only time that Samantha is directly objectified is in the following scene:
Samantha: ‘I’ll look spectacular in an orange jumpsuit with chains around my ankles.’
Jeff: ‘You would, yes. You’d look great in anything, or nothing’ (248).
This is most of the objectification that occurs towards women in Gray Mountain. As can be seen, it is tame, limited, and spare. However, the issue with this obvious and extreme change affects Grisham’s quality of writing as there are no physical descriptions of women at all. For instance, the reader never learns if Samantha is tall or not, her hair color, or her race. There is absolutely nothing that could remotely paint an image of her in our head or of most of the other female characters. This is again an exaggeration that Grisham has fallen into: from exaggerating about women’s physical traits and sex appeal to avoiding even describing the heroine’s hair color.
Nevertheless, another rarity regarding objectification in Grisham’s novel occurs in Gray Mountain: male characters are objectified and physically described more than ever. Two main reasons for this seem to be that Grisham might be trying to balance the objectification of women that occurred before, and second, the dominating view is from a women’s perspective. Men are objectified in a tame way as well, using expressions such as “cute” and “pretty boys” (303-304). This assures that Grisham is safe from criticism because he equally balances the amount and degree of objectification towards both genders, and thus a feeling of fairness and equality is reached. Unfortunately, Grisham reverts to his negative strategy of representing women as passive. Unlike Darby who consistently takes the initiative, is assertive, bosses affluent men, and is determined to succeed, Samantha tends to make excuses and shy away from taking initiative in any case she is part of. Samantha also does not know where she wants to live and continue her career until the last page of the book. The heroine can be described in one word that is rarely, if ever, associated with a strong heroine at any point in their journey: passive. An important instance where she is incredibly passive is during a passionate conversation regarding trial work between her father and Jeff, the brother of a deceased trial attorney. Grisham actually portrays her passiveness exclusively through internal thoughts, which is, ironically, something very rare for his female characters: “Samantha almost said, ‘Please, come on,’” and “She wanted to ask, Great, Dad, and was that the fee you kept offshore and tried to bury until Mom got wind of it?” and “Is everything lucrative, Dad? Samantha wanted to ask” (201-204). Samantha kept wanting to ask several questions, but yet she never did and just held it within, making her look weak and passive.
Another specific instance where she is portrayed as having a passive role is when she realizes that Jeff used her as cover to help towards getting all the documents he needed to finish his brother’s trial work (328):
Samantha: “I know Jeff, I know. I’m not stupid. You need me for cover, a chick who’ll put you out by the fire during long romantic weekends on the property. A girl, any girl will do, so that the bad guys will figure we’re just kayaking and grilling on the porch, a couple of lovebirds screwing away the long winter nights while you sneak through the woods with the files.”
Jeff: ”Pretty close, but not just any girl will do, you know? You were carefully chosen.”
Jeff: “Just be the girl” (346).
Here we can see how Jeff is using Samantha to further his own hero work for his deceased brother. She should be the one that initiates actions, uses others as aids, and is viewed as a leader if Grisham wanted to make her believable as a heroine. A heroine is also someone that is marked by growth, and while Samantha does finally decide what she wants to do at the very end, the ending is incomplete and does not really stand as proof for her growth and potential. She decides to tell off the lawyer who offers her a Big Law position with all the benefits in the world and work for the clinic for an indeterminate amount of time. The ending is in the air though with how well she will be able to perform all this work and what she will do next. Even though there are instances where she does seem intent on change regarding the male/female ration in law firms and so forth, she rarely shows this through actions. Samantha’s passiveness and constant avoidance of growth, leadership, and initiative can hardly make the case for a strong heroine as Grisham promised his wife and audience.
Despite the fact that most reviews have been negative in regards to Grisham’s attempt to create a strong female heroine, Grisham has managed yet another positive change in his representation of women: more female awareness and verbalized desire to fight objectification against them and improve their status quo in the legal field. As the readers will remember, this has rarely happened in his novels as demonstrated through the passiveness of his previous female characters. This is mainly achieved through his two main female characters, Mattie and Samantha. For example, Samantha announces at the very end of the novel: “When I walk into a courtroom, I want all the boys to sit up straight and notice, and not just my ass” (368). She also demands a lot of information and things from Andy regarding how she wants to be treated and the male/female ratio when he offers her a Big Law job in a new firm: “What’s the male/female breakdown? No all-boys club” (310). In fact, one of Samantha’s greatest goals regards her awareness and desire to make a change in the male/female ratio in law firms: “Her goal had been to make partner by the age of thirty-five, one of few women at the top, and nail down a corner office from which she would play hardball with the boys” (16). Mattie, though, actually shows through action that she is not afraid to boss men around and succeed:
Snowden: “Okay, what do you gals have in mind?”
Mattie: “Don’t call me a gal!” Mattie barked at him. Snowden recoiled fearfully, as if he might get hit with one of those sexual harassment claims…”
“They wheeled about and marched away, leaving Snowden weak-kneed and shell-shocked and already having glimpses of the nightmares” (107).
In this interaction, Mattie is the one who does all the talking and scares Snowden away as Samantha is watching. Mattie runs a legal aid clinic, and thus Grisham empowers her with leadership. Alas, dividing the two areas of law, big law/trial law and legal aid/counseling, perpetuates the stereotype that aggression, assertiveness, power, money, resilience for Big Law/trial law is on the men’s side, and emotional counseling, comforting, unpaid work for legal aid is on the women’s side. Samantha even makes that association regarding trial attorneys when she wins her first small lawsuit by stating, “This was the overdose of testosterone that inspired men like her father to dash around the world chasing cases” (197). The negative implications towards women within the legal fiction world transcends to consequences in real life, showing, yet again, the powerful effects of any genre.
About the reviewer: Viviana I. Vasiu graduated as valedictorian from Stetson University in 2015, and is now attending Stetson College of Law. She was published as student editor several times in the two university magazines; with an experimental fiction piece in The Reporter, the oldest collegiate newspaper in Florida; and with two research papers internationally. Her main interest is in the intersection between law and literature, which is also why this book review was part of her senior thesis entitled “A Feminist Analysis of John Grisham’s Legal Fiction.” She is working on her writing and advocacy skills at Stetson Law (recognized as the best in the nation in advocacy and third for writing) and is hoping to pursue a PhD afterwards.