Sunday, October 7, 2012

Review: The Broker by John Grisham

In his final hours in the Oval Office, the outgoing President grants a controversial last-minute pardon to Joel Backman, a notorious Washington power broker who has spent the last six years hidden away in a federal prison. What no one knows is that the President issues the pardon only after receiving enormous pressure from the CIA. It seems Backman, in his power broker heyday, may have obtained secrets that compromise the world’s most sophisticated satellite surveillance system. Backman is quietly smuggled out of the country, given a new identity, and a new home in Italy. Eventually, after he has settled into his new life, the CIA will leak his whereabouts to the Israelis, the Russians, the Chinese, and the Saudis. Then the CIA will do what it does best: sit back and watch. The question is not whether Backman will survive—there is no chance of that. The question is, who will kill him?

The last time I read a book by John Grisham was in high school after The Rainmaker with Matt Damon came out and I was on a Grisham kick for a while. I remember liking the pacing of his novels, the characters doing what is right despite the odds being stacked against them, and Grisham's easy writing style that provided enough detail to sympathize with the underdogs but never crossed into too much familiarity. So when I came across the paperback of The Broker memories did their thing and the book came home with me. It sat on the shelf through my well-intentioned "reading schedule" phase, got passed over a couple of times after that until finally I was in the mood for it.
Almost immediately I saw that either my memories were flawed or The Broker didn't fit in with the Grisham novels I read. In the beginning there was a lot of backstory setting the scene for Joel Backman's release from prison. It painted him as a ruthless, greedy man unfamiliar with the very concept of morality, and even as freedom was offered to him after years in solitary confinement in conditions that were clearly meant to break him he accepted it as if it was his due. And then Joel was moved to Italy and with the new clothes and a pair of Armani glasses he seemed to take on a new identity in more than just name - still demanding and knowing exactly what he wanted, he at the same time has acquired an appreciation for the simpler things in life, and seemed to have re-evaluated his past and was determined to live differently. Unfortunately this transformation got almost no page time, it was more or less just there, leaving the reader to arrive at their own conclusions as to how Joel got from point A to point B.
Pacing left much to be desired as well. Events rolled along leisurely for about three quarters of the book with Joel endlessly going from Italian lessons to meals and back, and things started to feel a bit like Groundhog Day, until in a blink of an eye our protagonist transformed from a frustrated tourist into a man of action masterminding his true freedom and once again manipulating some of the highest powers in Washington into doing his bidding. This transition, though not unexpected, was so sudden and swift that it almost gave me whiplash and once again left me with a sense of dissatisfaction.
My favorite scenes in the book were where Joel was shown adjusting to life in Italy. His first attempts to order food in a foreign language, his growing familiarity with Bologna, even his overwhelming drive to learn Italian made him into a sympathetic character despite his thoroughly unsympathetic past. I really could do with more of that because I think it would develop the characters and the book wouldn't feel so much like a chronology of events past and present.
All in all it was a decent read and I was glad for the way things turned out. I just wish it was more fleshed out in every aspect.

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