"CAMINO ISLAND," by John Grisham, Doubleday, $28.95, 306 pages (f)
The perfect summer beach read is literally about books on the beach.
John Grisham's return to storytelling brings readers his first nonlegal novel since his 2012 baseball story "Calico Joe" — but even though "Camino Island" isn't a standard Grisham thriller, it still keeps readers turning the pages.
It tells the story of young novelist Mercer Mann, who finds herself undercover looking for a set of stolen F. Scott Fitzgerald novels. When she heads to Florida's Camino Island, where she used to vacation as a child, she falls for bookstore owner Bruce, who possesses the stolen manuscripts.
Every part of "Camino Island" packs a bunch. Each sentence flows seamlessly into the next. Switching from the opening heist to Bruce's experiences to the main character's struggles feels natural and well-composed. It's easy to breeze through this novel in less than a week, as Grisham's smooth writing carries readers through a romantic thriller.
Grisham is, of course, world-famous thanks to his law-based thrillers, such as "The Firm" and "The Pelican Brief" (both also successful movies), but "Camino Island" is a change of style, a romantic thriller with an unreliable female narrator. This is Grisham's entry into the popular style that includes Gillian Flynn's "Gone Girl" or Paula Hawkins' "The Girl on the Train" — stories about female protagonists and their quests to solve crime.
Still, there's something missing from "Camino Island." Main character Mercer sparks little sympathy in readers — just enough to keep them interested, but not enough to make them really care about her. And the novel's final moments don't put her in immediate peril, either. In the end, the story's relatively low stakes limit the dramatic effect of Mercer's character.
In addition, the novel's plot devices tend to overshadow its characters. The idea of someone stealing famous first drafts of "The Great Gatsby" is enough to hook many readers. But the characters are inferior to the plot. There are long stretches where readers may wonder whether these characters care about the missing manuscripts, especially since there's no real sense of what is at stake. The story tells readers that the scripts are lost but nothing about what their loss means.
Still, Grisham knows how to keep a reader engaged, and the novel's ending is a decent conclusion to the story. It may not be bold, as Grisham leans to the safe side with the conclusion, but it is competent. Although "Camino Island" is a slight departure from his usual novel, Grisham doesn't add anything new with it to the thriller game or to his own repertoire.
"Camino Island" is a fine choice if readers need to crack something open while spending a day on the beach. It'll make the day pass and entertain readers long enough. But no one should expect this one to deliver any big surprises from one of America's best-selling authors.