NEW YORK (Reuters) - Bookstores opened early across the United States on Tuesday as Harper Lee's second novel, "Go Set a Watchman," went on sale to mixed reviews and widespread disillusion over the depiction of heroic lawyer Atticus Finch as a 1950s racist.
In Lee's hometown of Monroeville, Alabama, one of the author's old friends reported the writer was delighted with the response to her only published novel since her 1960 classic "To Kill a Mockingbird."
"She looked at the stack of reviews and her reaction was delight," Professor Wayne Flynt told reporters on Tuesday. He said he paid Lee, who has failing eyesight and vision, a visit on Monday evening as hundreds of townsfolk lined up to buy the book at midnight.
"She loves the spectacle of this, everyone in town. I summarized the reviews, but I'll go back tonight and read them too her. She's processing this all in good humor. I think the world takes her more seriously than she takes herself," Flynt said.
Although widely billed as a sequel to Lee's tale of racism and injustice in the American South, "Watchman" was written before "Mockingbird" but is set 20 years after the events of her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel.
Lee, now 89, was advised by her editor in the 1950s to recast "Watchman," which features a grown-up Scout Finch and her aging father, Atticus Finch, and tell the story from a child's point of view. That reworking became "Mockingbird."
"Watchman"s portrayal of the older Finch as a man who has attended a Ku Klux Klan meeting and opposes racial desegregation has already grabbed headlines because of the stark contrast to the noble lawyer in "Mockingbird" who defends a black man wrongly accused of raping a white woman.
The character was immortalized in Gregory Peck's Academy Award-winning performance in the 1962 film version.
The Wall Street Journal's Sam Sacks described "Watchman" as "a distressing book, one that delivers a startling rebuttal to the shining idealism of 'To Kill a Mockingbird.' This story is of the toppling of idols; its major theme is disillusion."
In New York, stacks of "Watchman" greeted book buyers at the Barnes & Noble store on Fifth Avenue.
"It sort of feels like a historic literary moment," said Addy Baird, 19, who left work to trek to the store in the rain. Baird said she was still attached to the "Mockingbird" characters and worried she might be disappointed in their new story.
"I've always said, if I have kids, I'd want to name one of my kids Atticus," Baird said. "But I have to read it before I make any decisions."
Several reviewers found fault with the new book on artistic grounds.
David L. Ulin of the Los Angeles Times called it "an apprentice effort (that) falls apart in the second half." Julia Teller at the Chicago Tribune said it was "almost unbearably clunky" in parts.
National Public Radio's Maureen Corrigan called it "a troubling confusion of a novel, politically and artistically."
The book is "kind of a mess that will forever change the way we read a masterpiece," Corrigan said.
It was too early on Tuesday to measure any possible fallout on sales. Publishers Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins, has ordered an initial U.S. print run of 2 million and "Watchman" has been the best-selling book on Amazon.com in pre-orders for more than a week.
Not all the reviews were negative. While criticizing parts of the book, Teller said "Watchman" was memorable for its "sophisticated and even prescient view of the long march for racial justice."
Additional reporting by Rich McKay in Monroeville, Ala., and Katie Reilly in New York; Editing by Bill Trott and Peter Cooney