Saturday, October 13, 2012

The Casual Vacancy (J.K. Rowling)

I am a big fan of Harry Potter. I credit J.K. Rowling with cementing my love of reading--I'm not going to say that she created it, because many books were read to me a lot growing up; the love was already there, but Harry Potter made reading more exciting than it ever had been. Of course, when I heard that JKR was going to come out with a new book, I knew that I would read it, no matter what the subject matter. How could I not?

I promised myself before starting, however, that I wouldn't be blinded by my love of Harry Potter. There are two ways to be blinded: the first, that anything Rowling produces is magical, and the second, that nothing can ever rival Harry Potter. Unfortunately, it seems that a lot of the people out there were blinded in the second way, disappointed that the book wasn't as good. This gets into one of my biggest annoyances: the use of comparison as a rating.

I saw many reviews that criticized the book only because it wasn't a new Harry Potter, barely mentioning (if at all) anything about the quality of the novel. This reminds me a lot of when the Pixar movie Brave came out this summer: most of the negative reviews said things about how the film would have been good if it weren't a Pixar film. That burned me up: I have no problem with someone looking at Brave and saying "that's not as good as other Pixar films", but to use that as the only reason the movie wasn't good is ridiculous. The same principle applies here. I agree that The Casual Vacancy wasn't as good as any of the seven Harry Potters. Does that mean it's a bad book? Certainly not.

The plot centers on the small English town of Pagford in the wake of a councilman's death. Barry Fairbrother, the aforementioned man, leaves a vacant seat on the town's parish council, and this is a particularly politically-charged moment. There's some big drama (rather, big drama for a small town) about an unsightly neighborhood and the drug rehabilitation clinic it houses--some of the people in Pagford want to cede the seedy area to a neighboring town and close down the clinic, while others believe it's important to give the less fortunate a chance.

What ensues is 500 pages inside the minds of various members of the town as the events leading up to (and following) the election for the empty seat. As I have said again and again, I cannot resist the allure of a soapy drama, and this is a delightful one. Rowling's signature style remains in this book, and she does what she does best: creating characters that are memorable and flawed and unique. It was a pleasure to watch the drama of Pagford unfold and observe the characters develop and succeed and fail the way real humans do. Characterization really is the author's strength.

Because this book is for adults, and it's a realistic work, there are adult things: drugs, sex, self-mutilation, abusive relationships, etc. There was quite an outcry when the book came out--"oh my goodness this is definitely not a book for kids" and "I can't believe she would put these things in a book--she wrote Harry Potter!" and "it feels like she was just trying to prove that this is a book for adults so she put a lot of bad stuff in it". There are plenty of adult books that feature "mature themes", and that's totally okay because they are books written for adults. The attempt to pigeonhole J.K. Rowling into writing only children's books really irritates me.

That said, the book isn't perfect. Some negative reviews mentioned that it was distracting to jump around from the mind of one character to another, and while I've read other books that do this without any problems, I will agree that The Casual Vacancy was a bit distracting because the move from one character to the next isn't marked with a new chapter or a line break or anything. One paragraph, you're following Samantha Mollison, and the next, you're inside the mind of Parminder Jawanda. But it isn't too hard to figure out. Only slightly disorienting.

The book's ending is sad, but I don't feel like it reached the emotional height it was supposed to--I never felt as fully moved as I suppose I ought to have been. I suppose that this is the only failure of the book: we don't feel involved and connected enough with the characters to feel that last blow of feeling that the book intends for us.

To everyone: give The Casual Vacancy a chance. Don't assume it will be wonderful--or awful--because J.K. Rowling wrote it. Judge it on its own merits.

My rating: 4/5
The Casual Vacancy on Goodreads
See what I've been reading lately!

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