Book Recommendation: The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling
The world waited with bated breath for J.K. Rowling’s first non-Potter adventure. But, with her beloved magical series, she created a very tough act for herself to follow. So, folks, I can sincerely recommend The Casual Vacancy, but please don’t expect to pull an all-nighter-reading-under-your-sheets-with-a-flashlight-so-Mom-doesn’t-know like you did J.K.’s first time around.
We love Rowling for her ability to develop dramatic yet relatable relationships between her characters, and this skill shines in The Casual Vacancy. Pagford is a very small, very nosy, very political town that is deeply shaken when the popular Barry Fairbrother unexpectedly dies of a brain aneurysm.
Barry was a beacon of human decency. If that sounds like faint praise, it is, but was quite unique given his neighbors. Barry coached a team of high school rowers who idolized him for his knowledge of Rihanna's “Umbrella,” he was the only man who could tolerate a windbag high school principal, and he didn’t participate in the town’s national sport of gossip.
Essentially every other citizen of Pagford is consumed by self-interest. Their agendas vary, but their selfishness is constant: Howard Mollison, an obese merchant and pompous expostulator, prizes the glory of his family above all else; Kay Bawden, a social worker, tries to do a bit of good in her day job, but ultimately is out to snare a man; Simon Price just wants money, honest or not. As will happen in small towns, each character is connected to the rest in more ways (often unsavory ones) than they could count. It’s a bleak portrayal of humanity, set in the midst of snobbery, slums, adolescent promiscuity, and classism.
My difficulty with the novel came in that each individual subplot all comes down to good and evil. Pagford is dramatic, but not uniquely or complexly so. I found myself wishing for more shades of grey (no, not these).
Perhaps the Dakota Fanning of authorship, it seems Rowling is doing her best to be mature by talking about deep dark things. But her portrayal of dark subjects, like a teen girl cutting herself, falls flat: “Her self-disgust was like a nettle suit; every part of her prickled and burned with it.” And somehow Rowling even makes the female body sound like Voldemort: “shaven vulvas; pink labia pulled wide to show darkly gaping slits.” (I guess 52% of us humans are Slytherin...)
After hundreds of pages of bleakness, you’ll experience a a dark, unnecessarily twisted end to the novel. Luckily, the reader comes away with this moral: life demands empathy and people deserve respect. Though it’s not rocket science, overall, The Casual Vacancy is a worthwhile page-turner. The juicy storylines keep the story moving, and Rowling’s smooth, easy narrative might not always stun, but it won’t let us down.
Source: I bought this book on my iPad (so I didn't have to carry hundreds of pages on vacation to Ireland).