Book Review: The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling

Well, we now all know that my predictions (based entirely on rumor) from earlier in the year were completely wrong. This was, most certainly, not a crime novel.  I struggle to categorize it actually, except that it was very definitely adult.  More on that later.

The New Yorker did a (long) piece on JKR and the new book last week. They called it Mugglemarch, which is an obvious combination of Muggles and George Eliot’s Middlemarch. I wasn’t crazy about the article, but that’s not really important. The name stuck with me. I read Middlemarch last year.  It’s considered a true classic, and is the most famous of George Eliot novels.  I have to say I didn’t love it, and even though it’s considered a classic I haven’t met anyone else who has actually read the thing.  Assuming you haven’t either, here’s a very brief description–Middlemarch follows the lives, marriages, and fortunes of a large ensemble of characters, all of whom live in the eponymous town.  There is room in the narrative for the poor and ignorant, for the wealthy and intolerable, and, mostly, for the middle classes.  There are lots of interweaving plots and themes, from the invasion of the railroad into the country to medical reform, from ill-advised marriages to scandals involving wills and estates.  It’s subtitled “A Study of Provincial Life” and that is very accurate–Middlemarch, the town, is the most important character of the novel.

Why am I yammering about Middlemarch?  There are obvious similarities.  It takes place in a small, picturesque town and revolves around the lives of locals. It features the terribly poor, a bit of the very wealthy, and a lot of the middle classes. The town, Pagford, is its own character in the novel–though in this case I found that the town was always described in terms of what others felt about it. Good or bad, accurate or not, their opinions and emotions were what defined the town, rather than the truth of the town.  There is a local election, just like in Middlemarch. 

Another big similarity: I am not sure I like it.

I was expecting to like it.  I was confident that I would like it.  I like to read, and very rarely do I dislike a book I pick up.  On top of that, I am a huge Harry Potter fan, as anyone who reads this would know.  I trust JKR as a storyteller, and I don’t limit myself to specific genres or types of writing.  I had no reason not to like this new book…unless it just wasn’t good. Which, to be honest, didn’t really enter my mind as a possibility.

I’ve been trying to pin down what I dislike about it.  Nothing. There’s nothing.  But it just pales so much in comparison to HP, that I find it hard to enjoy.

The writing is the same style, lingering between literary and popular fiction.  It sort of takes popular fiction and adds more depth, emotion, and strong storytelling.  But it never makes the jump to challenging, and that can sometimes mean it never takes on the role of being extremely meaningful.  When you’re in a world where fate and destiny play huge roles in the lives of your characters, that is less important.  Everything is meaningful and it’s easy to take allegory away from the characters and the stories. Everyone can see that Voldemort is like Hitler, without much prompting.  But when you’re dealing with ordinary life, and you have things like sex, drugs, child abuse, and banality, something is almost lacking.  The story is about ordinary people, and the writing never verges into the extraordinary.  Which means the whole novel feels a bit flat at times. I would still prefer this to pretentious stories about ordinary people (*cough*Jonathan Franzen*cough*), and if she hadn’t written Harry Potter first, then perhaps I wouldn’t be disappointed by this.  But she did, and I don’t think there’s any way to not be disappointed at something that doesn’t quite match that achievement.
Another thing that seems missing is the humor. I know that people described it as a ‘dark comedy’, but I think those people are loose a screw. This is a tragedy.  It even passes the “tragedy ends with a funeral, comedy ends with a wedding” test of ye olde dramatic categorization.  There are moments where particularly obnoxious characters are put in their place, but I did not find those moments funny.  Usually, in order to give those characters a much-needed ego check, someone else has to suffer.  In one scene, a pretentious council member is explaining that no government funds should go to treat drug addicts, because they are costing tax money when all they need to do is stop taking drugs.  His doctor then points out that if he thinks it’s so simple then why doesn’t he stop gorging himself on foods (he’s quite overweight) and asks if he knows how much his bypass surgery cost the taxpayer. There is a savage pleasure in hearing this man put in his place, and this scene made my jaw drop.  But at the same time, the hatred and anger everywhere is tiring and made me so anxious that my hands were shaking.  And of course, there were consequences for the doctor as she was breaking patient privilege saying these things in public.  Compare this to a scene in which Draco Malfoy or similar is firmly humiliated.  Of course, I found most of those scenes counterproductive and unrealistic.  But the realism of The Casual Vacancy was too much for me to feel comfortable with.  It made my palms sweat.

Much has been said about the sex scenes and the other explicit material.  I was a bit shocked by it, I’ll admit.  Then I asked myself, would I even blink if this wasn’t a writer I associated with a, frankly, sexless world.  No, I wouldn’t.  There was nothing so crazy or unusual in the scenes. It’s just that they were there that makes ripples.

As much as I feel conflicted about this book, there are parts of it that are so JKR and so well done that I would be amiss not to mention them.  Most obviously, her understanding of teenagers.  She has a great talent for describing any number of people and creating characters who are believable and tangible, but none more so than teenagers.  This book is no exception. They are all terribly visible, real, and easy to conjure in your mind. I don’t find that any of them reminded me of me, but I could see snippets of friends and crushes from high school in each one. I think much of it is her way of describing characters from their very first scene that lets you settle them in your mind as definite and tangible–never hazy or cloudy.  Even before you know much about them, you can see them.  She still has this ability.

She can also produce incredible emotional range in the audience (or, in me anyway).  I raged at times, I cried for sure.  I wish there had been more to laugh or smile about.

And so many of the characters are shown only as their worst possible selves, that there is little faith that they will really make things better.  It’s more realistic this way, but I apparently don’t read books for their absolute realism.  I just found it too depressing to want to read it again.

And I think that’s the real root of the problem. I suppose it’s a bit similar to Romeo & Juliet. The town is made stronger, but only through some incredibly senseless loss and tragedy. But even though it ends on something of an upswing, I find I’m too mired in the loss to move on and feel that it was worth it. The loss is too pointless and awful to make up for the meager offerings and motions toward a better world that are made in the last few pages.

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2 responses to “Book Review: The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling

  1. Wow. I read a handful of reviews on the book once I’d finished it the other day but yours truly nails it on the head. Very well written! This book was unrelentingly grim, and though I didn’t compare it much to Harry Potter, it just wasn’t my cup of tea. My reading horizons aren’t as broad as yours (I mainly stick with fantasy, classics or, more recently, early ghost stories) and I avoid these types of ‘realistic’ books like the plague so, though I found it generally well written and engaging, it was just a horrible reading experience overall. (Stupid thing to note, but the only comparison I could give to HP was the SMELL of the book. It was very off-putting because I could sense her voice, which I’d only read in HP, and then the book smelt like HP, but it just…wasn’t. Ugh.)

    • I didn’t notice the smell. My HP books are so often read and so worn at this point that they usually smell like chocolate (brownie crumbs stuck in between the pages) or bubble bath.

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