I recently asked for book recommendations from friends, specifying that I wanted something that was well-written but not overly literary, and that wouldn’t take up too much of my brain power (I was in the mood for a good story, period), and one of them recommended I check out J.K. Rowling’s new novel for adults, The Casual Vacancy. Being completely out of the loop on everything ever, I wasn’t even aware that she had written a new book, much less branched into new territory. I love the Harry Potter series and was both intrigued and trepid at the thought of a for-adults novel by the same author– the last time a writer I liked made the switch, the results were horrifying. (Ann Brashares, author of the actually-pretty-good YA Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants series, wrote a for-adults novel called The Last Summer (of You and Me), and it was one of the worst piles of festering crap I’ve ever read. The title probably should have tipped me off, but her writing itself, which I’d always enjoyed before, was awful too.)
I went online to see what it was about, and was pretty surprised that its ratings were so low. I figured that she probably made the same mistake Brashares did– namely, bringing her adolescent POVs into a novel meant for adults while also trying too hard with the writing to sound sophisticated– but as I scanned through the user reviews, I started to see some trends (click to enlarge):
After discounting all the bad reviews that can be summed up as “WTF, there’s no wizards in this one” and “She drops the F-bomb and talks about unpleasant things, oh my” (since I’m okay with a little grit and we all know how I feel about depressing subject matter), the rest of the reviews giving it low ratings mostly said that it was boring and there were too many characters. Since I love Rowling’s writing style and characterization so much, I decided to give it a try anyway.
Without giving too much away, the basic plot line is that a man dies in the first chapter and leaves a “casual vacancy” on the town council in a small English village that is in the midst of a heated local political dispute. The book then follows how his death, and the suddenly empty council seat, affect various residents of said small town. There are a lot of open and not-so-open resentments, tangled webs, and ulterior motives; pretty soon into it all, the drama starts flying.
Rowling jumps between POVs every chapter, and sometimes within chapters and scenes, and yes, there are a lot of central characters (about ten adults and five teenagers). The book does take some initial effort to keep track of them all. However, once things started gaining momentum, I got completely sucked in and finished it in a few days, which says something, considering it’s 500 pages long and I read enough for my job that I rarely feel like reading much in the evenings. At first I was just curious and enjoying the ride, but the closer I got to the end, the more I genuinely wanted to know what would happen to the characters. Her writing style is as fluid and identifiable as in the HP books, and while the characterization is stronger with some than others, there was enough there that I became invested in them. (Probably the character to whom I found myself most attached was a sixteen-year-old boy, actually; Rowling does seem to have a talent for writing adolescent perspectives, and she does it in a way that I still found it relevant and interesting, unlike Brashares.)
The “vulgar” parts of the book aren’t all that bad, for the record. Yes, the plot is pretty depressing, and yes, there is adult language and themes, but it really wasn’t overly explicit and none of it seemed superfluous or forced. It felt pretty true-to-life; as much as some people don’t want to admit it, teenagers do swear, drugs do exist, sometimes kids grow up in bad homes, and most people find themselves either thinking about or having sex at some points in their lives. (Shocking, I know!) Do you want to give this to your 12-year-old niece for Christmas? Probably not. Are you old enough to get into R-rated movies at the theater? You’ll probably be fine, unless you stubbornly adhere to a worldview where nothing unsavory ever happens. The mature themes are on par with what millions of other writers have written about without anyone fainting or denouncing them, and they’re practically PG compared to what some well-respected writers publish. Actually, as I was reading, the subject matter– both the common thread of a personal-interest political issue and the grittier look at lives that don’t always make the people living them proud, as well as the way Rowling tells the story from multiple POVs– reminded me a lot of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, which was met with fantastic reviews from critics and readers alike.
The difference? Franzen had a completely different fan base. As much as the reviewers on Amazon were claiming that they knew it would be different from HP, they carried the preconceived notion of what Rowling is allowed to write in with them– even if they let her get away with writing about humans instead of magical beings, they struggled with the fact that she made them a little too human for their liking. It’s true that The Casual Vacancy has none of the fun, escapist qualities of the Harry Potter books, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a good story or isn’t well-written. Part of me almost thinks that Rowling should have written it under a pen name, but then of course, it’s possible that it wouldn’t have gotten any attention at all. There has been discussion about whether or not Rowling wrote it just to distance herself from her reputation, which I think is a valid question; however, the feeling I got as I read is that this was a pet project for her, and a story she very much wanted to tell.
Either way, The Casual Vacancy ended up being exactly what I was looking for. Well-developed plot, well-developed characters, and delightfully whimsical prose (yes, even with the dark subject matter). It wasn’t the best book I’ve ever read but it was solid and enjoyable. Whether Rowling keeps writing novels for adults or goes back to YA fantasy, I will keep reading.