Typically, we publish our book reviews under a Worth A Read title because Carolyn or I have liked them enough to recommend them. From time to time, a book one of us reads is not that well written or not that interesting (or sometimes both), and it doesn’t make the cut. It’s especially frustrating if that book has received good reviews or a lot of buzz.
I had this experience with The Mockingbird Next Door, by Marja Mills, a personal account of the mysterious “Nell” Harper Lee. Not long after To Kill A Mockingbird was published, Lee disappeared from the scene, and for the last 50 years she has lived quietly in her hometown of Monroeville, Alabama and in New York City. Like her character Boo Radley, she has not had much need to engage with the world beyond that of her family and close friends. She has never written another book. Many of us have wondered about her for decades.
Mills was granted a series of interviews with Lee and her sister, Alice, for a magazine article, and she then lived next door to them for eighteen months. She is one of very few people who has been able to get to know Lee, become part of her circle, and then publish a book about her experience. This was the opportunity of a lifetime, and, unfortunately, Mills did not make the most of it.
No doubt Mills worked long and hard to produce her best work. Her writing is clear and reminiscent of solid magazine journalism. I believe she sincerely loves her subject and wants to show her affection for Lee and her world to us. I know she got as close as she could to this most enigmatic of authors. Still, the book is lacking, and what it lacks is structure.
Most of the books we think of as classics and we remember all our lives hang on a strong framework. A well written and well structured book – one with a clear timeline, rising and falling action, and a satisfying conclusion – is a work of beauty. Ironically, a great example of a structural masterpiece is To Kill A Mockingbird itself. Lee sets up her story flawlessly and marches us through a crime, a brilliant courtroom scene, a surprising climax, and a resolution. It is considered one of the greatest books ever written.
Maybe the intent in Next Door was to present a book that was like Nell Harper Lee herself – a bit random, given to tangents, demanding in small ways, and skittish about change and progress. Or perhaps an editor thought that the relationship between the aging author and young interviewer was a compelling thread and needed ample exploration. In either case, these approaches disregard the reader. We need to know where we’re going and where we’ve been. We want to be brought back again and again to certain themes. We like to see characters take shape before our eyes. A story without structure has no support and ends up going nowhere.
The Mockingbird Next Door is, unfortunately, a collection of anecdotes without a clear message or theme and no real meat. Even the slice of insight into the ever elusive Nell Harper Lee can’t make up for what’s missing. There are no slam dunks in writing. Fiction or non-fiction, structure always matters.