Jake Lehman and his wife, Sydney, have left Washington D.C. for a fresh start in San Francisco. Their legal careers are on the rise, but so are tensions between them as they continually find themselves on opposing sides of cases concerning judicial ethics and gender equality. Their conflicting views on the topic―coupled with growing career obligations, social pressures, and constant travel―come to a head when both Jake and Sydney are recommended for a Supreme Court seat.
With rising pressure threatening to divide the Lehmans, an innocent encounter is misconstrued by prying eyes and puts their relationship and Jake’s career in jeopardy. Can Jake and Sydney’s relationship withstand the intricacies of these cases and the complications of their careers?
This soon-to-be published novella is a sequel to the author’s 2020 novel Recusal, which followed the same characters as they worked in Washington, D.C. as law clerks. I don’t normally read a sequel without reading the first book, but when the publisher reached out to me about reviewing an advance reading copy, I was assured that that wouldn’t be necessary to appreciate this book. For the most part, this did seem to be the case.
Normally, I like to write my own summary for a book in my introductions, but in this case it wouldn’t have felt like an act of good faith. While what is described in the book’s official summary does take place, after a fashion, it suggests a lot more drama and intrigue than what unfolds in the text. More accurately, I’d say this book is an overview of the personal life and careers paths of this couple, interspersed with narrative vignettes that involve clashing perspectives on modern gender issues.
I say “overview” because of the unfortunate way that this narrative was written. Generally, you hear that a story should “show” the reader who the characters are and what’s going, rather than just “tell”. By the end of the first chapter, I realized that the majority of this book would be telling me about the lives of Jake and Sydney, but would rarely be taking the time to situate me in their lives and show me. The writing style was practically encyclopedic, so much so that when more dialogue-heavy scenes did arise, they often felt unnatural or forced.
This style kept the characters beyond arm’s reach for me the majority of the time. The narration spent a great deal of time telling me about their lives and relationships, but I never really cared. I was emotionally detached from these people and very little was developed in a way that could hold me in any sort of suspense. Complicating this further were the supposed conflicts referred to in the summary.
Simply put, they’re all nonstarters. The distance imposed on them by their careers can be understood as a strain, conceptually, but it’s not an emotional space we inhabit for either characters. The misconstrued “innocent encounter” never poses a serious threat, only a potential one that is decisively handled. My biggest takeaway, despite the idea that their relationship is somehow under threat, was that their marriage is virtually perfect.
Which brings us to the intended crux of the whole book: gender issues. The text repeatedly informs the reader that this is a point of disharmony between Jake and Sydney. They are otherwise very supportive of each other professionally and intellectually, both of them legal experts in their own right, but when they disagree over gender issues it tends to get heated. These are the “vignettes” I mentioned earlier, a word I use for these passages because these were the instances when the text zeroed-in on a moment in their lives the most. These heated moments are overinflated, however, as they only really amount to a handful of spats that occur throughout 25 years of an otherwise ideal marriage.
The arguments themselves refer to a lot of issues we hear about every day, but were oddly shallow the majority of the time. Despite how nuanced you might expect a discussion between two legal experts to be on such issues, there was only one that I can recall that wasn’t as basic as an exchange between two strangers on social media. It somehow never creeps into their family lives either, most noticeably absent in regards to their children, a son and a daughter. For being such a loaded issue between the couple, I was surprised nothing ever meaningfully came up regarding their kids and their sense of identity, even as just a matter of curiosity.
Their disharmony culminates in a case that reaches them when they are both seated on the Supreme Court. While the case itself, as it was divulged, offered relatively more intrigue and made for a stronger finish to the book, the foreshadowed discord between Sydney and Jake was once again a nonstarter here too. Weirdly still, the case involved sexual assault, but the matter brought before them was specifically about how the University handled the situation in relation to the accused. I don’t disagree with the ruling they eventually came to, but I feel like Sommer buried the lede here by not more clearly addressing why the accused didn’t face any criminal proceedings.
While the book offered a subpar reading experience, it wasn’t without some merits. The American legal system may be less relevant to me as a Canadian, but the author is an accomplished lawyer himself and I trust that the legal info the story conveys to the reader is accurate and correct. Though the language could be a little inaccessible at times, I did find the closer look at how the system works interesting. I can honestly say I came away from the book with a modicum of understanding that I didn’t have before, for what it’s worth.
Sommer also managed to balance the conflicting perspectives of Jake and Sydney well enough, despite the shallowness of their arguments, not letting his own biases overwhelm the text. I have biases of my own that generally steered me toward Sydney the majority of the time, but I could also understand the logic of some of Jake’s arguments and where his viewpoints were coming from. It may not have been all the successful to me, but it appears a sincere attempt was made for the book to have a more balanced perspective.
Not without its merits, I have a hard time recommending Courting Justice. At its core it has some of the makings of a good story, but the oddly detached writing style and shallow approach to the issues it means to tackle severely held it back. The writing is competent enough that it didn’t feel like a chore to read, especially with how short it is, and the look at the legal system was interesting at times, but it was also dull, failing to connect me with its characters and any sort of engaging conflict being largely absent.
My Rating: 2 out of 5
I would like to thank Turner Publishing for sending me a digital Advance Reading Copy of this book in exchange for my honest opinion. This has in no way impacted my review.