It's not often that I just can't get enthused about characters in a book - in fact, I don't recall the last time that happened. But as I read through this one, I realized I didn't much care how it turned out simply because I didn't much like anybody involved. That said, it's worth reading - it's Grisham, after all - even on a bad day he doesn't write junk.
The main character here is Samantha Kofer, a hot-shot career attorney at a New York law firm until she gets cut off at the knees by the 2008 recession and downsizing fallout. She and several coworkers are offered an "opportunity" to work for free for a year at various nonprofits throughout the country (assuming they can find one that will take them on). After that time without pay, there's a chance - albeit a small one - that she'll get her old job back.
She's not sure she wants it back, nor that she wants to go the nonprofit route (in fact, throughout the book she doesn't seem very sure of anything; she's almost totally without emotional connections - no doubt one of the reasons I never connected emotionally with her). Ultimately, she decides to leave the big city for a legal aid office in rural Brady, Virginia, where she's a fish out of water for many reasons. She's never been exposed to life in Appalachia, and she's never seen the inside of a courtroom except perhaps in law school - heck, she's never even owned a car.
Needless to say, she's forced to hit the ground running, trying to muster up an effort to help some colorful local characters who need it (for the most part unsuccessfully, IMHO - another reason I didn't like her much). She also bumps up against another town attorney - the hunky nephew of her boss at the legal aid office who's devoted his career to chasing potential big-money cases that involve the coal-mining industry - and his equally hunky non-lawyer brother (hint: potential love interests).
And here's where I encountered another problem. I'm aware of most of the issues surrounding Big Coal - I live just across the border from West Virginia and Pennsylvania (in the Keystone State, for instance, bituminous coal fields have been around since the late 1700s and was first mined at what is now Mount Washington in Pittsburgh, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection). Unquestionably, it's an industry that's fraught with serious problems even today (which, given powerful lobbyists in Washington, D.C., apparently we can expect to continue). But my objection here is that they're pointed out in a rather heavy-handed, almost "preachy" manner. Throughout, I got the message that if readers glean nothing else from this book, it's that we should all run out and do whatever we can to shut down coal mining for good. Unfortunately, after a while that got in the way of the story.
Not only were most of the characters rather unsympathetic - including Samantha's divorced parents, both lawyers - but the cases she takes on or helps with never really go much of anywhere. Yes, that's often the case in the real world - class-action lawsuits in particular can drag on for years and years - and I suppose that in itself is part of the book's appeal (pun intended). Samantha's life in what she sees as the boondocks is somewhat interesting (or could have been) to me, but she never seems to see it that way. Even when there's a bit of real action, she never gets beyond being a bit ticked off (temporarily, at that) at how it affects her personally.
Gray Mountain by John Grisham (Doubleday, October 2014); 386 pp.