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

Is it unfair that every new book J. K. Rowling writes for the rest of her days will be compared to the much loved Harry Potter series?  Maybe.  But that’s life, and I can’t really feel all that sorry for her, considering that Potter made her a billionaire.  For more on why Heather believes Rowling should stick to the wizarding world she knows best, continue reading her review of The Casual Vacancy.

I’m not going to lie.  I spent a majority of The Casual Vacancy, J.K. Rowling’s first foray into the world of adult fiction, ruminating on just four thoughts that managed to leech their way into my head: (1) “Oh J. K., why have thou forsaken me?  Certainly you are not the same brilliant woman who wrote Harry Potter!” (2) What the (insert expletive here) is going on?  Who are these people???  What is this garbage?” (3) “I know if I continue reading just ten more pages, the wizards will show up.  Right?  Please? Dumbledore, is that you?” and (4) “Please let it end… please let it end… please let it end.”

Well spoiler alert.

(1) She is indeed the same woman who wrote Harry Potter (unfortunately). (2) You probably won’t understand what is going on in the book until the last 150 pages or so. So get used to it.  (3) The wizards never show up (gasp!). And (4) the book eventually does end; that is, if you don’t end it first.  I, in fact, did walk away from the book twice, but each time that annoying little OCD riddled voice in my head reminded me that I don’t walk away from books.  After all, how can I judge a book half read?

So I stuck it out, and luckily, The Casual Vacancy improved towards the end (enough to rise from a meager 1 star rating to an almost 3).  The story follows the daily lives of the town members of Pagford, England, after Barry Fairbrother’s untimely death opens a spot on the town council.  The fight to be elected into this spot brings out the worst in the townspeople, and the dirty little secrets of the candidates are sooner or later made public.  Although the adults in this book are largely corrupt and endlessly unlikable, unfortunately most of their children aren’t much better.  However, there are a couple of unlikely teenagers that will keep you reading, and it is their stories that save the book from being a total failure (at least in my opinion).

There are a number of areas I found most lacking in this book.  First of all, at the beginning of the book, Rowling throws a million characters at the reader all at once and not only expects us to understand who these people are, but also to care about their sordid affairs.  It was overly complicated and confusing if you ask me, and it was very difficult to become invested in any one of the character’s stories for quite some time the way she bounce around with no real grounding.

Secondly, the characters really had no depth.  They were exactly as they seemed to be at face value, without nuances or complexity.  We need more characters like Don Draper in books if you ask me!  A chauvinist and a jerk at first glance, but every now and then revealing a tender side that hooks us and makes us secretly like him, even if we are reluctant to admit it to ourselves and others.

Finally, the plot was absolute bollocks!  Who in the world cares which of these scoundrels gets elected to town council?  Maybe I shouldn’t have read this so close the presidential election, when I’m all politicked out, but I doubt I really would have been interested in the plot line anyway.  When books don’t have interesting plots, they better darn well have interesting characters… and when they don’t have either, well, that’s when you get books like this one – unremarkable in every sense of the word.

There is only one saving grace to this book, if you ask me: Kristal Weedon.  Daughter of a heroin addict, promiscuous, a little bit of a bully, and perceived as a lost cause by nearly everyone but Barry Fairbrother, (unfortunately now dead).  Thank goodness she began to play a more central role towards the book’s end.  Although the town’s story is every bit the tragedy, hers was the biggest tragedy of all.  Or perhaps the biggest tragedy is how just so-so this book was, when I was expecting at least a modicum of greatness.

In conclusion, if, like me, you started The Casual Vacancy with the misguided notion that it had to be brilliant, and now find yourself wanting to give up on it, I’d say try and stick it out, at least for Kristal’s story.  But, if you haven’t started reading yet, then my best advice for you is to simply abstain.  Don’t let this tarnish your yet unsoiled opinion of Rowling’s writing.

Final Rating: (nearly) 3 out of 5 stars.

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