The biggest lesson to learn from Go Set a Watchman? You can't go home again. That is a prominent theme of the book, but also a warning for those hoping for another To Kill a Mockingbird (see my review here). Mockingbird, published in 1960, focused on Jean Louise "Scout" Finch from the ages of 6 to 9 and her interactions with fellow Maycomb County residents as she tried to understand racism and bigotry. Watchman traverses the same territory from the adult Jean Louise's perspective.
Watchman was written prior to Mockingbird but shelved when her publisher suggested she rework it to focus on the stories of her childhood. The manuscript, thought lost for decades, was found in a safety deposit box. Controversy swirled over the announcement of its publication in the wake of the death of Harper Lee's sister, who had fiercely protected the author's legacy.
Watchman tells the story of 26-year-old Jean Louise, now living in New York, returning to Alabama for a visit. She is naturally conflicted over the changes she observes. However, the story eschews vivid depictions of the physical contrast between the small-town rural life of Scout's youth and her adult, big-city life. I anticipated her observing the slower pace, the buildings which hadn't changed a bit, the businesses she was surprised were still standing, and what people had died or moved away. This would have been similar to how Mockingbird unfurled its lessons couched in character vignettes and snapshots of young Scout's adventures.
Instead, Watchman focuses on the adult Jean Louise's inner turmoil and debates with other characters. This makes for an even deeper exploration into racism and bigotry, but at times it feels less like a novel than a philosophical dialogue constructed by Plato.
In the end, the reader feels Jean Louise's pain in recognizing that home will never be the same and that maybe it was never what she'd thought in the first place. However, the reader also feels another kind of pain. The reader longs to return to the world Harper Lee built for To Kill a Mockingbird but must accept the futility of such a dream.