The most popular New Adult book since the genre emerged has recently been released. Even before its publication it received accolades and had the greatest pre-order sales of any book in recent years.
And why shouldn’t it? The young 20-something protagonist faces conflicts that echo those of NA readers, albeit more dramatically at times. Our beloved heroine battles issues of identity, independence, insecurity, family, and relationships. It has readers rolling in laughter, silently sobbing, and at times wanting to smack her upside her head.
The only thing surprising about its success is that it was written half a century before the genre in which it so perfectly fits ever existed. Quite possibly, its eighty-nine-year-old author, Harper Lee, hasn’t even heard the term New Adult literature.
Go Set a Watchman, the sequel, or parent book as Lee herself called it, to To Kill a Mockingbird, caused tremendous controversy when early reviews leaked revelations that rocked the reading world, most notable that Atticus Finch was a racist. Mockingbird fans who had idolized Atticus and raised him to a level of godliness, as much as Scout herself had done, said they’d refuse to read any book that painted him as anything less than perfect.
Ironically, this is the true conflict of Watchman. It’s not a book about race. Yes, it’s set in the South during a time when racial tension was turning even more violent. Yes, the protagonist’s main conflict surrounds her and her father’s seemingly irreconcilable views on race relations. (Although Jean Louise makes some questionable statements herself for someone who is so-called ‘color blind.’) And yes, the book offers readers plenty to talk about concerning our country’s history of racial divide, the reasons behind it, and how we can learn from the past to begin to mend the country’s current problems. And to miss an opportunity to talk about such important issues would be a shame.
But at its heart Go Set a Watchman is a story about a young woman’s coming of age. While To Kill a Mockingbird has been called a coming-of-age tale, it certainly wasn’t Scout’s, who was only age nine by the end of the book. Though both she and Jem learned hard lessons about life in Mockingbird, a true coming of age moment launches the character out of the innocence of childhood and forces her to find the strength to stand on her own—defending her own convictions and recognizing, as well as reconciling, her own flaws and the flaws of others—especially those she revered. That is the story Lee tells in Watchman.
Although it was written long before the New Adult genre existed, Lee’s novel can be described as such because it is a riveting tale of the struggles we face as we find ourselves and our places in the adult world—a world that struggles with issues of race just as it did in Scout’s time. The Atticus of Mockingbird was the elevated idol of a little girl. The Atticus of Watchman is the father of a young woman who is beginning to see life, including her hometown, her long-term romantic interest, and her family, in her own terms. Atticus, like the others—no, more than the others—had to be flawed. He had to be real. Without discovering these sides of him, Jean Louise could never have separated herself from her history and her family to find herself.
Yes, for fans of that idolized Atticus, the disillusionment is painful. It is also productive, not just because it provides us an opportunity to talk about an important problem our country still faces, but also because it provides the catalyst needed to tug our protagonist firmly into adulthood. Jean Louise learns to embrace who she is, starts to consider what she wants, and comes out of it a stronger character. And not entirely at the expense of Atticus, who is certainly more complex at the end of Go Set a Watchman, but just as loved—by his daughter, and, I expect, by most readers.