Book Reviews

Book Review: Camino Island by John Grisham – Mixed Feelings

I was an early fan of John Grisham, with thrillers about lawyers who sought to upend the system in various ways or thwart a crime. Camino Island is quite different than what I’m used to from him.

Bruce Cable is a popular bookstore owner on Camino Island in Florida. With the way of the world, he makes most of his money trading in rare books. The FBI and the insurance company have reason to suspect he might know a thing or two about a heist at Princeton University, where several of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s manuscripts were stolen. They coerce Mercer Mann, a young, would-be novelist who’s unemployed and down on her luck. They dangle enough money to make her comfortable for a while if she will just go live on Camino Island for a while and make the acquaintance of Bruce Cable. Her family has lived on the island for a long time, making her not-quite a stranger there.

The thing is, there’s no real mystery here. It’s just a story and not a particularly good one. The story is set up knowing that Cable had something to do with the heist. Grisham goes to great length to flesh out a backstory for both him and his “wife” (we’re never quite sure whether they are really married or not), but little of it has anything to do with the story. It’s just taking tangents that serve no purpose. I knew what was going to happen in the end, it was just a matter of how the story would get there. Is that enough to keep a reader engaged? Apparently not, from all of the negative reviews I read.

Mercer goes to stay at her grandmother’s old cottage on Camino Island. She hasn’t been there for many years, her sister uses it most of the time as a vacation home. She’s ostensibly there to write a novel. This is real life and the cover story that helps her ingratiate herself with the literary types that live on the Island, and eventually with Bruce Cable. She spends no time working on the novel as the writer’s block that plagued her continues while there.

I think Grisham was going for “quirky” here but didn’t quite get it. Characters are introduced and then dropped off the canvas for no apparent reason. Even those who helped him with the heist seem menacing, but some just disappear with no explanation.

The story is decent, and I did want to finish the book to see what happened, but it’s not really a thriller. The two main characters, Mercer Mann and Bruce Cable are not particularly likable. Cable gets off on manipulating people, Mercer included. He enjoys the adulation the literary community on the Island gives him, but it’s all an act, really. Much is made of Cable’s seemingly “open” marriage, but other than giving him justification for sleeping around, it serves no purpose and his “wife” is barely present in the novel.

The community of the Island felt as if it were modeled on Martha’s Vineyard or Nantucket, where the wealthy live to get away from everyone else. The most interesting characters are two retired writers who live there and love any excuse to host a dinner party and meet the various authors who travel to Cable’s store for promotional events. Grisham wrote them quirky enough to make it interesting whenever they appear.

While I enjoyed the book, and will likely read the follow-up, I don’t think it’s for everyone. A few days with this in your hands this summer on the beach might work if you’re a real Grisham fan, but otherwise it’s definitely not Grisham’s best work.

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