Apr 12, 2012
The Casual Vacancy is
Rowling deciding in her junior year of high school that she doesn't want
to be the quiet good girl anymore, so she goes out and dyes her hair
some shade of neon and starts dressing all in black and listening to
screamo and leaves her debate club and choir friends for the poetic
crowd. She gets a few piercings and smokes about two cigarettes, and her
parents are worried, but they don't need to be. It's all experimental,
part of her development as a person, her learning who
Vacancy is Rowling deciding in her junior year of high school that she
doesn't want to be the quiet good girl anymore, so she goes out and dyes
her hair some shade of neon and starts dressing all in black and
listening to screamo and leaves her debate club and choir friends for
the poetic crowd. She gets a few piercings and smokes about two
cigarettes, and her parents are worried, but they don't need to be. It's
all experimental, part of her development as a person, her learning who
she is and who she isn't and who will love her anyway. It's just a
teenage rebellious phase, and it will pass, and in the long run, she'll
benefit from it. But right now, she really needs that ankle tattoo.
You know, metaphorically.
respect her for being brave and trying new things, which a lot of
authors don't have the nerve to do, and I appreciate the difference
between the Wizarding World and the world of Pagford, England. However,
IMO, this is her worst work to date, and The Casual Vacancy is a mess,
not only in comparison to her previous works, just as a whole. Had it
been a debut, I would have disliked it, but said that if the author
could develop the ability to focus in on only a few subjects, she could
show some potential. Standing next to her seven previous novels which
ranged from 'pretty good' to 'I don't ever want to write anything else
because I know it can never compare', the Casual Vacancy is just kind of
embarrassing. It takes the few flaws of the HP books and elaborates on
The Casual Vacancy has Order of the Phoenix's annoying
teenage angstiness, Half-Blood Prince's general lack of structure and
punch, Deathly Hallow's self-indulgent misery and bleakness (but, like,
times a million), and the general bloatedness that plagued her last
three books. Only this time, it's all grays and groans and there's no
humor or fun anywhere in its excessive length.
The cover flap for
this book talks about how the small town of Pagford, England, is shaken
after the death of one of the town council members, Barry Fairbrother.
However, the actual story was mostly about the problems of the
Pagfordians, with the occasional feeble return to the idea that Barry's
death, or at least the empty town council seat, is universally important
to all of them. But mostly it's about how everyone--and I do mean everyone--is really messed up in some way or other.
biggest problem that this book had was its lack of focus. Within the
first 100 pages, we're introduced to at least 20 characters and 20
problems. The narrative continues to jump back and forth between the,
oh, at least 15 leads and their various issues, which makes it kind of
hard to keep track of who's who and who's dealing with what, as well as
difficult to allow us to feel any kind of connection with any of the
characters. The book is 503 pages, and felt both overly long, and too
short, with the pages too heavy.
You see, Rowling was determined
to make this an Adult Book, which apparently means taking on "real
life" issues of the Rated R variation. That includes, in no particular
order, adultery, pornography, bullying, self-harm, politics and its
evils, rape, teen sex, drug use, prostitution, child abuse, lawlessness,
pedophilia and other mental illnesses, homosexuality, death, grieving,
swearing, immorality, suicide, sex obsession, early stages of
alcoholism, and the beginnings of psychopathy (though to be fair, the
last two are only my inferences/unprofessional diagnoses).
list it out like that, it sounds worse and dirtier than it is, I think,
because while all of these things are addressed, most of them aren't
developed beyond a glancing mention or a quick scene or two. I just felt
that Rowling wanted to make sure people could understand that she's
willing to take on serious themes. However, they were all so poorly
handled that it all just felt like a few superficial additions to prove
that she wasn't writing for children anymore.
Also, she was
probably looking for some kind of substance, because at the end of the
day, this book really doesn't have a lot going for it plot-wise. It was
all over the place, yet came off as oddly dull; I was bored for most of
the book. There were a lot of problems to various degrees of awfulness
and significance, but somehow they all seemed rather mundane. There was
no scandal and none of the excitement that comes with it. It felt like a
laundry list of Important Issues that needed to be discussed in some
way or another, wrapped up in the form of a book and in no way similar
to the well-planned and marvelously plotted Harry Potter series.
course there were some similarities. Oddly enough, it starts with the
death of a beloved, similar to the first chapter of Sorcerer's Stone.
The reactions of the townsfolk to Barry Fairchild's death are much the
same as Professor McGonicall's and Hagrid's to Lily and James' murder:
shock, disbelief, tears, despair.
Seeing this array of emotions
was a really odd thing. With the way Rowling wrote it, I had no doubt in
my mind of what the citizens were feeling, and yet I myself felt mostly
indifference. There was also a sense of triteness about it somehow; the
emotions weren't poorly written, just predictable, and as you watch the
fourth group of people react in much the same way as the first, it
starts feeling overly scripted and somehow false.
That's how I
felt about pretty much everything here; it wasn't that the problems were
unrealistic, just that the way people reacted to them was exactly what
was to be expected, and that disappointed me somehow. The more she would
talk about what a character felt, the less I could believe it.
the Prince's Tale chapter of Deathly Hallows? Rowling showed us this
character who, despite his complexities, has been pretty consistently
soulless throughout the series (in the best possible way), and in a few
pages she tore him apart. We just watched a few moments of his life,
with no real narrative or commentary from him; it was all just actions
and yet we knew and felt exactly what he felt. And when he does cry and
scream and pray for death, we feel it so acutely we're doing it
Or almost. I'm not that dramatic (although some
fans...). But she made me feel something. It kills me that she couldn't
do that here.
A big part of it was the characters. Like I said
before, I didn't know any of them well enough to care that much about
what they were doing. They were paper cutouts of people, nothing more
than they needed to be to address a few problems, and none of them were
real to me.
That's sad, because almost everyone in the Harry
Potter books, minor characters included, was real to me, and they were
all so very human. From Harry to Snape to Narcissa Malfoy, there were so
many tangible shades of people, some more good and some more bad, but
at the end of the day, (with the exception of Lord Voldemort, which was a
characterization in itself) they all had some humanity in them.
think that's the biggest thing lacking here: there are no good men, or
women for that matter. No one in this book shows any interest in anyone
other than themselves. There aren't any bonds of love or friendship, and
if Rowling says there are, I never felt them. She spent so much time
showing the dark side of humanity, the gritty underbellies and
manifestations of the world's evils, so much time making sure that
everyone suffers and everyone makes everyone else suffer, that it seems
she forgot that people are more than just bad. She forgot about the
humanity in humans.
One of the prevailing themes of the Potter
books was love. Everyone felt it, and brought out the best in everyone
and redeemed the worst of them. It was beautiful, and gave so much more
meaning to everything. Maybe Rowling didn't want it to feel like she was
repeating herself; maybe she wanted to show that life is hard, and
I know this is her attempt at serious realistic fiction,
but ironically, I feel like there was more realism in the Harry Potter
series. They might have been fantasy, but they showed so much of real
life: good vs. evil, strength vs. weakness, love vs. hate,
discrimination, grief, loneliness, friendship, how annoying the media
can be... The only theme I felt here was that life is hard, but most of
us knew that already and don't need to be reaffirmed of it. And for the
innocent, let them be. Beyond that, Harry Potter made more sense as a
whole; it was mapped out without being rushed, whereas the plotting here
is clumsy at best and nonexistent at worst, the conclusion coming out
of nowhere in another attempt at realism that feels merely contrived and
melodramatic, another awkward attempt at making us feel.
Rowling was trying to prove herself as a "serious author", but it kills
me; she never needed to. The Harry Potter books were so good, and there
was so much heart, and this just feels like an uninspired attempt to be
the antithesis of that. If Stephenie Meyer had written this, it would be
a huge step up, but Rowling's career didn't need this; we were never in
doubt of her ability. I get what she was trying to do here, I just
don't feel that she accomplished it at all. For me, it was too sprawling
yet too short; she should have either narrowed in on a few characters
or gone full Gone With the Wind and made it about 1500 pages so she
could get everyone developed properly (and let's face it; if anyone
these days could get a book that long published, it would be her).
well. With all evidence to the contrary, The Casual Vacancy hasn't
really sullied my opinion of her; I still think she's brilliant, now I
just know she's human. People make mistakes, and then they learn from
them. That being said, I hope Rowling sticks to YA and MG books; there's
less pressure, and besides, her writing has a kind of precious quality
to it that makes talking about penises and masturbation fairly
Overall, I personally wouldn't recommend this
book, but if overplayed suffering with literally no bursts of sunshine
in between is your thing, you're gonna love this one. Or, more likely,
if you're a Harry Potter fan and can't stay away, just read it to end
the wondering. Some fans have loved it; others have been unimpressed,
but at the end of the day, you have to form your own opinion. I've made
mine without any real emotional or psychological harm (it wasn't as
nasty as Gone Girl and therefore couldn't touch me), and so you must
make yours. Unless, of course, you absolutely cannot deal with any
mention or allusion to the topics previously listed, or under the age of
16, in which case, it actually is a good idea to stay away. Your call.
My pre-reading review, like I hadn't gone on for long enough already:
A lot of negative reviews for The Casual Vacancy thus far, and an
interview with Rowling in Entertainment Weekly bragging that yes, her
book has sex scenes and other forms of adult content.
I dunno. I
don't want to judge The Casual Vacancy prematurely because that's not
fair of me, but I don't know that I want to go out and spend thirty
bucks on a copy if it's as dirty (and... non-engaging) as people are
saying it is.
I will read it. Or try. Because no matter how bad
the reviews are, I (and a lot of other people) can't just walk away
without knowing for myself. I have to read it, and if I don't like it,
my review will reflect that. However, it may be a while before I get to
read it; I intend to check this one out from the library and probably
won't have my hands on it before December.
So I'm scrolling down the list of Goodreads updates when I see that someone's added a coverless book with a rather bland title.
With the words 'by J.K. Rowling' underneath.
then, like an episode of Spongebob Squarepants, my eyeballs bulged out
of my head and exploded into flames from sheer excitement.
not like I didn't know she was writing another book. Because I did. It
was on the target thing on the back page of Entertainment Weekly. And my
friend mentioned it to me. And, you know, you can't just write seven
epics and then drop off the face of the published planet. Well... you
can, but I read somewhere a while ago that Rowling didn't intend to.
So I knew there was going to be a book. But it didn't become a reality until I saw the little coverless marker on Goodreads.
And... it is real. And there's even a description. And... I had to read it twice to really understand it.
still don't understand it. Like, I read it, and my brain registered all
of it, but, like, I can't remember it because it was weird.
these people, these characters she's mentioning, they appear to be...
ordinary. Muggles, one might say. I didn't see the name 'Harry'
anywhere. No mention of magic. Quidditch. Not even Privet Drive.
How do I feel about that?
We shall see.
Where are my expectations?
don't yet know. On one hand, my opinions of the last, say, three books
in the series are on the low side; I felt like the HP books peaked at
Goblet of Fire, which remains one of my absolute favorite books ever.
But with Order of the Phoenix, Half Blood Prince and Deathly Hallows,
she just kinda got wordy and boring and not a lot happened and I still
kinda loved it and everything, cuz it was Harry Potter, but...
The Casual Vacancy is like that, I won't love it. Because I won't have
that love of the characters and the setting to make the boring good.
I'll just have guilt from my love of the HP books that'll make me lie to
myself and pretend that I'm enjoying it.
Plus... it's gonna be
an adult book. I'm not sure how that's going to work out. There was
something very childish about the writing of the Harry Potter books.
That's not a bad thing at all; they were written for children, so it was
fitting. It made them charming. But if she holds onto that same writing
style and tries to bring it to an adult book... well, like, knife at a
gunfight. It could ruin the entire thing.
So, in that way, my expectations are already low to spare me the agony of not having them met.
the other hand... it's not like J.K. Rowling isn't an amazing author,
because she is. She wrote the most hyped books, like, ever. In my
lifetime, at least. And they weren't overhyped, they deserved it. She
continually gave us wonderful characters, a gorgeous world of magic and
muggles, excellent story lines (with the exception of the last few, but
I've already been there), and yet had them all tie together for one
blood-soaked conclusion. The Harry Potter books were great.
So here's to hoping this one will be.
If it isn't, here's to the tears of millions of fans.
The world is watching. So good luck, Ms. Rowling, and may the odds (and editors) be ever in your favor.