Friday, March 10, 2006

Review of Skipping Christmas by John Grisham

The name John Grisham has become synonymous with a certain type of book known as the legal thriller. Grisham, after all, has published 18 novels in the last 18 years, and nearly every single one of those books have been about lawyers or big trials. So it might come as a surprise that one of Grisham's most popular books to date is called Skipping Christmas. This is one of the few Grisham books that doesn't feature a lawyer as the main character and there's not a single trial or lawsuit scene on any of the pages. Sometimes when an author departs from the formula that has made him or her so successful, the results are disastrous. Fortunately for Grisham, however, his golden touch prevails with this book and he has another winner on his hands.

Skipping Christmas is the story of Luther and Nora Krank, a typical upper-middle class suburban couple in their mid-40s. The Kranks have just packed their daughter off to Peru, where she will be putting in a stint with the Peace Corps, and they suddenly realize that for the first time in more than two decades, they will be alone for Christmas. This thought doesn't fill them with sadness; on the contrary, they are looking forward to it.

But then Luther sits down to go over his accounts and discovers that the Kranks spent a whopping total of $6,100 on Christmas the previous year. He can't believe that amount, and starts going over in his head what they could possibly have spent all that money on. After all, they don't have anything concrete to show for it.

Luther soon realizes that most of the money was spent on things that don't matter: expensive food and drinks for the Kranks' annual Christmas party; elaborate decorations for their home so that they fit in with the rest of the block; presents for people they don't even like to begin with, etc. He concludes that everything was just a colossal waste, and resolves not to make the same mistake this year.

After some hesitation, Luther broaches the subject with Nora and springs an interesting idea on her. Instead of falling into the same trap of useless spending, why not just skip Christmas altogether? They wouldn't decorate, throw a party, buy any presents, or do any of the other things that hint at celebrating Christmas. Instead, they would take a 10-day cruise with the money that otherwise would have gone to waste. By Luther's calculations, they would actually save close to $3000 by going on a cruise rather than sticking around for Christmas.

Nora is a little hesitant at first, but slowly comes around and warms to Luther's plan. From that point on, Skipping Christmas deals with all the problems they encounter because of their decision. As you can imagine, most of their co-workers, friends, neighbors, casual acquaintances, and relatives think they have gone off the deep end when they say they are simply going to skip Christmas this year, and the events that unfold because of the Kranks' intentions are nothing short of hilarious.

In Skipping Christmas, Grisham shows that in addition to being a savvy attorney who knows the ins and outs of the legal system like nobody's business, he also has a wonderfully wry sense of humor. As I said before, this book is quite a departure from his usual fare, but it works for me.

A lot of critics of the book have said that the characters are mere caricatures and that their actions are greatly exaggerated. I agree with this claim to a certain extent; however, I firmly believe that this is the effect that Grisham intended. After all, he is a seasoned writer and surely knows how to create the kinds of characters that he needs in order to prop up his plotline. I don't think he was "mailing it in" on this novel, as some have accused him of. I personally think it's great when authors take a chance and veer from the tried and true formula that has brought them so much monetary success. In fact, I can totally imagine Grisham having more fun writing this book than he had when writing his last few legal thrillers.

You might also be interested to know that this novel, like most of Grisham's other works, has been turned into a major motion picture called Christmas With the Kranks. It starred Tim Allen and Jamie Lee Curtis as the Kranks and was distributed by Columbia Pictures. Also appearing in the film were Dan Aykroyd, Felicity Huffman (of Desperate Housewives fame), and Jake Busey. I have not seen this film, so I can't tell you how closely it follows the storyline of the original novel.

Skipping Christmas is a very quick and enjoyable read. It is not meant to be a serious work, nor is it intended to be a scathing social commentary. It's just a humorous poke at the way otherwise normal people turn into raving lunatics when the stress of the holiday season gets to them. Grisham fans who are expecting his standard courtroom drama might be disappointed with this work, but they might also find the change of pace refreshing. Whether you are an established Grisham fan or not, I think you'll get a kick out of this book. So keep it handy and pull it out next December when the relatives start getting on your nerves!

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