Goodreads summary: When Barry Fairbrother dies in his early forties, the town of Pagford is left in shock. Pagford is, seemingly, an English idyll, with a cobbled market square and an ancient abbey, but what lies behind the pretty façade is a town at war. Rich at war with poor, teenagers at war with their parents, wives at war with their husbands, teachers at war with their pupils…Pagford is not what it first seems. And the empty seat left by Barry on the parish council soon becomes the catalyst for the biggest war the town has yet seen. Who will triumph in an election fraught with passion, duplicity and unexpected revelations?
I cannot review this book without mentioning Harry Potter, so let me just start with that and get it out of the way. As you all know, I am a huge Harry Potter fan. I’ve read the books a couple dozen times each, and in doing so, I’m able to see both the positives and the negatives from the author. In them, Rowling did a fantastic job at storytelling and characterization, but (imo) not so great on the writing or consistency in world-building. So, when I heard that she had a new book coming out, my thoughts were split. I really hoped she would focus on the story and characters, and rely less on the actual writing.
Then I heard the official book summary, and my heart sank. It was one of the dullest story ideas I’d ever heard, not in the least bit enticing to me. There were only two authors that I could imagine writing a story like that and pulling it off in a way that I would enjoy – Tom Perrotta and Emile Zola – and one of them is dead. There is a lot of contemporary adult lit about mundane suburbia out there, and most of it puts me to sleep. A lot of it feels, to me, pretentious and silly, especially when it tries to shock the reader from time to time. I worried The Casual Vacancy would be the same way, and instead of pre-ordering a copy, I just put myself on the library hold list the first moment it was available.
A week before the book came out, I started to see reviews talking about the language and content of the book, and my heart sank even further. From the examples given, it seemed that Rowling tried particularly hard to prove that this book was For Adults, that she fell into that trap of trying to shock the reader on top of a mundane background. At that point, I wasn’t even sure I would read past a few pages of the book when it finally did arrive from the library.
It arrived for me last week, and I began to read it almost immediately. The verdict?
I was pleasantly surprised. First, as expected, her characterization is really good. The majority of the characters felt like real people, and they are ones I can imagine remembering by name years from now even if I never reread the book. There were a few – Gavin, in particular, springs to mind – that felt under-developed, but for a book that has a wide spread of characters all introduced very quickly and early on, I was impressed by how well we got to know all of them. Second, though the plot is mundane (practically nonexistent, honestly), the characters really carry the story, and the storytelling is, again as expected, excellent. Rowling does a brilliant job laying out scenes, making them very vivid to the imagination, and I was definitely hooked on all the individual storylines for these characters, even if those storylines were nothing more than their day-to-day activities and how different local events affected them. Third, Rowling’s writing was much, much improved from the Harry Potter days, far more than I expected. It felt polished in a way that I hadn’t seen before, and that added to the book’s appeal.
Now, it wasn’t a perfect book. In minor things, there was (as I said above) a few characters who felt under-developed, and I think the ending was a bit too abrupt and it pulled too many different parts of the story together (thinking specifically of Sukhvinder and the computer monitor). The more major flaw, to me, was that there were definitely some cringe-worthy, “shocking,” prove-this-is-for-adults moments, especially in the first few chapters. It’s not the swearing and sex and drugs that bugged me; it’s that every once in awhile, Rowling would pop out with something that was very gritty, but frankly not terribly realistic, so that it felt like grit for grit’s sake. Take, for instance, the introduction of Howard, where she says that everyone who first saw him and his very large bulk – stomach fold hanging over his thighs – instantly thought about his penis. Um, really? Because I’ve seen very, very large people before with very, very large stomach overhangs, and their genitalia aren’t exactly at the forefront in my mind. I have plenty of other thoughts, but I don’t think I generally wonder about their sex life and genitalia cleaning habits. I can’t imagine I’m alone on this…
Most of the shock-writing is kept to the beginning of the novel, though, and I was happy to discover that the majority of the novel did not continue in this vein, but instead focused more on the various characters that inhabit Pagford. I have seen complaints that pretty much everyone in this book is unlikeable, and I think to a certain degree this is true, but I didn’t find it a negative. It felt realistic – people showing the stripped-bare parts of themselves when they are alone or among the people they are least self-conscious around. In some ways, I think all people have negative aspects of themselves that don’t always get aired to the public. Plus, I actually found as much good in many of these characters as I did bad, and I thought it was interesting that some of the most likable characters were the ones our society generally thinks of as scum – drug addicts, teens who fight and swear and have sex a lot, and so on. Considering that a big portion of this book had to do with the politics of supporting (or not) a poverty-stricken neighborhood full of drug addicts, high school dropouts, and teen moms, I thought that the contrast was very well done.
I am not sure this is a book I will want to read again in the future, though it might be – I certainly did get a lot out of it. Would I have read it if someone other than Rowling had written it? Probably not, but I’m glad things worked out this way. I’m glad that despite my trepidation, I went into The Casual Vacancy with an open mind. I now look at Rowling with more respect and admiration than I did before, and I’m looking forward to seeing what else she might publish in the future.