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 facade 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 town's 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?
“The Casual Vacancy,” which one bookseller breathlessly predicted would be the biggest novel of the year, isn’t dreadful. It’s just dull.
"The Casual Vacancy" is about the residents of the small town of Pagford. When Barry Fairbrother dies suddenly, he leaves a vacant seat on the town council. In the election that ensues, secrets are unearthed, lives are ruined, and people are snide to each other for 500 pages.
It's difficult to engage with this book because the characters are just so unlikable. They feel real, but only because they are the people you go out of your way to avoid in your everyday life. There is an occasional clever turn of phrase, but not enough to make it an enjoyable read.
Above all, this book is a curiosity. Everyone wants to know how adult J.K. Rowling's first adult book will be. The only thing notable about it is it's author, and comparisons to Harry Potter are inevitable. In place of the whimsical fantasy of the Harry Potter world, we get unrelentingly banal social commentary There is humor, but it's mean and crass. If I want to read a gritty book about humanity's dark underbelly, there are scores of better written and more insightful. Some people will dislike "The Casual Vacancy" because it isn't Harry Potter, but more will dislike it because it's dull and pointless.
In all seriousness, I'd say the only way to appreciate this book to its fullest extent is to follow these instructions:
1. Pick up book.
2. Remove or turn dustcover inside out.
3. Completely and utterly forget that its writer was in any way involved in the creation of Harry Potter.
Then, be prepared for a barrage of characters - I would even suggest using a notepad (at least initially) to keep track of the members and friends of the main families involved in the kerfuffle. It's not a pretty place, this Pagford. Rather, it is inhabited by a large number of people who all seem to have devastating secrets and ulterior motives for everything they do. Rowling does manage to make them feel real in all their misery and the descriptions of abuse in all its vile forms are both poignant and immensely sad.
There is a little too much of the misery, but that is partly the fault of the editor/publisher who has (doubtlessly due to the name on the cover) let the book get to over 500 pages when a much shorter story would have packed a bigger punch. You do get to a point where you wonder if the extreme details of abuse are only there to ascertain that the difference between this and Rowling's previous books is absolutely clear.
In the end, while not entirely enamored (especially with the ending being a bit rushed), I must admit I enjoyed Rowling's effort to tell a story and at the same time make a point about contemporary small-town life and its issues. Oddly, this could be considered her sophomoric novel, and as such I think it's well above par and am looking forward to seeing if her next novel lands somewhere a little more comfortably between the two extremes.
Since word of the novel first broke, Rowling and her publisher have been at great pains to make clear that this is no Harry Potter-style epic. No, indeed. This is one of those old-fashioned tragedies where nobody comes out the other side happier or healthier or less the worse for wear.
The unexpected death of Barry Fairbrother triggers the eponymous "casual vacancy" on the Pagford Parish Council. It takes only a few pages for Rowling to reveal to her reader that Pagford, on the surface a simple English country town with its gleaming town square, bustling deli, and all the other trappings of a serene little village, is really anything but serene. There's a bitter struggle going on, and Fairbrother's death has just given one side a lopsided advantage.
It seems as though Rowling almost took pains to include as many different "adult" scenarios and themes as she could pack into 500 pages: domestic abuse, self-mutilation, racial animus, drug addiction, bullying, mental instability, depression, repressed ambition, adultery, theft, sexual assault ... and through it all, the shadow of severe class animosity. There is a deep sadness that saturates this novel from start to finish, overwhelming every tiny flash of humor that makes a brief appearance (there are some, but they are few and far between). One can't help but feel for some of Rowling's miserable characters, but the vast majority of them are simply unpleasant, and the pleasant ones don't get much time in the spotlight.
I wasn't bored by this book as some reviewers have been. I didn't think it dull. I wanted to watch the train wreck happen, even though I cringed as I did so. I thought the book terribly sad, and wanted nothing more, when I had finished reading it, to go take a walk and listen to birds singing in the trees and watch the clouds scuttering across the sky. Rowling came to our attention as someone who brought a little magic into our lives, but there is no magic here. In The Casual Vacancy, we get only the harsh realities of life.
This book follows the lives of the citizens of a little town called Pagford. It shows how the people of Pagford move on after the death of Barry Fairbrother, a councillor of the parish council. The parish council had been teeming with drama over a lower-income area of Pagford called The Fields and the local drug rehab center, Bellchapel, and it only gets worse after Barry's death.
When I first started reading this book I got a bit confused with who all the characters were. There are quite a few characters and the book changes point of view a lot so it does take some time to familiarize yourself with all the characters and how they relate with one another. J.K. Rowling was great with developing and fleshing out the characters throughout the book.
The main theme that I really got out of this book was the struggle between the rich and the poor. The selfish and ignorant "rich" people of Pagford no longer want The Fields to be included in their town. Meanwhile the "poor" and hopeless people of The Fields are just looking to survive. What J.K. Rowling achieves brilliantly is her unveiling of the two groups to show just how similar they are. Both the rich of Pagford and the poor of The Fields have their own problems and their own battle scars. Neither is better or more perfect than the other.
Unlike J.K. Rowling's previous books (which I swore to myself I wasn't going to mention) this book doesn't really have a happy ending, at least not for everyone. More tragedy is brought upon the town of Pagford and readers really get to see what certain characters are made of. While I enjoyed the ending it did feel a bit rushed and unresolved to me. It was a beautiful ending but I was still left with some questions.
This would have been a book that I would have read whether or not J.K. Rowling was the author. I can see why people would be upset or disappointed in this book, especially if they didn't start reading it with an open mind. I enjoyed this book and would be willing to recommend it to others. I would recommend this book to someone who can look past the Harry Potter series and just judge the book on its own merits. Be warned though that this book has some highly adult subjects and children should probably not be reading this.
The Book Description: 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?
My Review: This was going to be a nastygram to billionairess Rowling, all about setting up expectations and not meeting them, blah blah blah. What cheek. Some little man, well littler than I used to be for sure, sitting with his netbook perched on his lap pillow querulously tapping out a chastisement of one of the world's richest, and most deserving of it, writers.
Plus, I was wrong.
This is in no way an inferior book, it's not badly crafted, it's got some snarky sparkly characters, and it's telling a story quite akin to the one in Peyton Place. And that book's been in print since long before I was born. (Well, maybe not long exactly, but before.) (It was TOO before! Quit muttering.)
What it isn't is the problem. No, not Harry Potter, of course it's not; but it's also not groundbreaking and amazing. It's a solid, middle of the pack read, and we expect Rowling to bowl us over with imaginative flights and eternal verities expressed pithily by wildly romantically named characters. She tells us a right good story. She hits on all imaginable human foibles. She puts some amusing and cutting lines in the mouths of her ladies. I finished the book because I kept thinking about Pagford and its peeps. Now that is an achievement that most writers don't manage, making me think about their characters after I've put a book down.
So why the mingy three stars? Because in the end, I was wrong to be snarky and dismissive of a well-made book, but I wasn't wrong to want a writer with Rowling's track record to wow me again. She's done it seven times before. Why not this time? It's what I'm craving. So please Ms. Rowling, please, tell me another story when, and only when, you feel The Tingle and have the goods to deliver.
And thanks for silently teaching me to get over myself. It's a valuable lesson. Every time I learn it, it gets more valuable.
"The Casual Vacancy" is set in a small village in the English countryside, where everyone knows everybody and gossip is rampant. The novel features many of the townspeople and their struggles from day to day in their lives. I don't think that there was one character in this book that didn't have major flaws. Every single one of Rowling's characters have some major issue that they are dealing with and no one is who they seem to be. Barry Fairbrother's sudden death leaves a vacancy of the highly political parish council and leads to a special election where townspeople turn against neighbors and friends try to bring each other down and try to get their pick for the seat to win. As the book description states it is clearly townspeople at war with each other and they will stop at nothing to make sure their favorite wins.
J. K. Rowling could seriously write about dirt and make it interesting. She has a writing style that immediately draws me in. This novel is not about imagination or rosy outlooks on life. There are bitter and harsh subjects to be dealt with, crude language at times, and subjects that will make some people uncomfortable. I applaud Rowling for taking some serious and controversial matters and approaching them in a way that only she can get away with. Was this the best book ever written? No.
Because the inevitable comparison will be made, I will address my thoughts of this versus the Potter series. Does it even compare to the brilliance of the Potter series? That can only be answered by the reader, but do not make the assumption that this book is anything like the Potter series. This is book is the antithesis of Harry Potter. This book is definitely not written for children and deals with very adult situations and has an almost vulgar and very bitter theme to it. Do not pick up this book and expect the same style of writing that Rowling has been previously lauded for. It's almost like she went from one extreme to the other and depending on how you feel about the story and the characters and the issues that each one of them has will determine whether you feel that this is a flop or not. Personally, I enjoyed it because it made me think about some very controversial issues and to be honest, I would have read this book anyways just because of the name of the author. Most people who read this book will be reading it for the same reason. If this book had been released before the Potter series, I feel that she wouldn't have reached the level that she has an author. This book has nothing to do with the Potter series, but it has the Potter series backing it up and that is what is selling copies. Simply put. Some people will be disappointed and some people will accept the book as a novel that stands on its own.
Overall Rating: 4/5
J.K. Rowling writes amazing sentences about class, racism, homophobia and human foibles. She never preaches, but it’s all in there. Each character is presented with the full integrity of his or her own worldview--revealed slowly as in life. As a reader, you eventually attain a God's-eye view into each one's soul. Marriages are not always what they appear to be. Teenagers—and adults—struggle with self-definition. The ugly girl is not just an ugly girl. We see bullying (by teenagers and adults), but we also learn a little about why the bullies bully. We understand what underlies friendships, and how important people also have their weaknesses, difficulties and terrors. The Casual Vacancy is telling us we shouldn’t assume we know anything about another person. Rowling writes the truth of life. It's what we don't know about people and why they act the way they do that's interesting. In The Casual Vacancy, she shows us the petty surface world of gossip about adults, children, and their relationships, but also the vulnerable hearts underneath it all. She shows us the “casual” and the “vacancy” beyond the governing meaning borrowed as a title.
If you appreciate good writing, don’t be put off by reviewers who wanted more Harry Potter and magical, fantastical events happening with no sex or swear words. This one… is about reality and the rare individual who truly loves another, while the loud-talkers broadcast their small-minded opinions. Teenagers, parents, and other adults might actually reflect and understand each other as whole human beings after reading this work. Like Toni Morrison, J.K. Rowling writes about big issues and trusts her readers. So read the whole book before you judge, else you’ll resemble too much a character not of your own choosing!
That said, it is a well-written, compellingly told story. In some ways, the very grimness works to its advantage. It's rather like watching a train wreck: one sees all these utterly mental people racing toward their own destruction, and one cannot look away.
The story seems simple: Pagford town councillor Barry Fairbrother dies unexpectedly, and leaves a seat open on the town council. Fairbrother was an advocate for keeping the funding of the local public housing project under the auspices of Pagford, while his rivals want its upkeep transferred to Yarvil, the nearby town that was responsible for building it. Fairbrother's death leaves an opening for his rivals to gain control of the council. It also leaves some of his most vulnerable students with a gaping void in their lives, as Fairbrother had organized and coached the town's first rowing team, helping a disparate group of girls become a true team. And the political maneuvering for Fairbrother's seat destroys lives as people's deepest weaknesses and most fearful secrets are used against them.
But the story is not so simple. In typical Rowling style, there are stories within stories woven together throughout the book --- each character carefully developed and painstakingly revealed, and the interconnections between the characters carefully traced. It's a well-crafted story.
But it is overwhelmingly gritty. There is too much deviance and darkness. It's as if Rowling felt that she had to tackle every conceivable social issue in this one novel. Nothing is left out: domestic violence, cutting, drug abuse and addiction, obesity, paedophilia, child rape, bullying and cyberbullying, internet security, the deficiencies of child welfare services, teen sexuality, alcoholism, mid-life crises, extra-marital affairs, sociopathy ... it's all there. And it's unrelenting.
The Greek tragedians knew that there had to be some respite from the horrors that they told. That for true catharsis to take place, the audience needed a chance to breathe. There is no breathing room in "The Casual Vacancy." From the first, it is raw, dark, and relentless. The tragedies and traumas press in from all sides. And that is its greatest weakness. Even a tornado has a few moments of peace at its center.
In short: The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling is brilliance personified, demonstrating Jo's genius at creating complex and insightful story lines and authentic and intricate characters.
It was with bated breath that I opened up the first page of The Casual Vacancy, all my immense expectations over the course of the previous months leading up to that moment. I was majorly excited to finally have something new to read from Jo, incredibly interested in what she could have to offer for adults, and... admittedly terrified that I wasn't going to love what she had written. That it was going to be too different, too foreign from my idea of J.K. Rowling and all she represents to me.
And it was. Different, I mean. The Casual Vacancy is very ADULT. That's not to say that there aren't any mature themes in Harry Potter, mind you, but all the story lines in The Casual Vacancy were definitely meant for adults only. And it was a shock. We're talking a story that involves hard drugs, teen sex, and rape. To go from the MG/YA story of Harry Potter, with maybe the occasional curse word, to the very mature and occasionally crude use of language in The Casual Vacancy was a bit stupefying at first.
Add to that that I had a hard time becoming invested in the story right at the start. I'm not sure if it was because the tone was shockingly adult and I didn't really know what to make of my childhood hero using such mature language, but I wasn't immediately taken into the story. And then there were all the characters. There are about 15 different main characters who all have chapters written from their point of view. FIFTEEN. And I was struggling in the beginning to keep track of them all. And I was just feeling underwhelmed by the story.
But then about a fifth of the way in, I realized that I was enjoying myself. REALLY enjoying myself. It sort of snuck up on me. I had been trundling along, trying to sort out the characters and becoming accustomed to Jo's new mature tone - and it all just came together for me. I understood it. Not just the characters and their complex relationships - I understood the story, the themes, and the message J.K. Rowling had been trying to get across. And I LOVED it. And that feeling continued for the rest of the book. Just like that, I realized I was invested in the story and the characters and I NEEDED to read more.
The incredibly mature tone and language that had shocked me so much in the beginning became more refreshing to me as I read on. It was authentic, it was gritty, it was REAL LIFE. I become complacent sometimes as I read my more tame MG and YA books and I forget about the gritty reality of real life. The Casual Vacancy is not a story about beautiful teens who realize they're special and fall in love and have incredibly banal romantic feuds, like the stories I am so used to reading. It is a story about real people, dealing with real situations, and there aren't necessarily any happy endings because life is crappy and unfair. And I truly appreciated that (not that I don't love my fun, easier reads at times, as well).
The characters all struck me as very genuine and credible and HIGHLY complex and well defined. Also - and this may be a turnoff for some readers - they were VERY flawed. There was not a Mary Sue or Gary Stu in sight, not in the slightest. They ranged from positively cruel-intentioned (inciting me to Umbridge-levels of RAGE) to well-meaning, but none are saints and none are entirely likeable. For me though, it was Barry Fairbrother, the amiable and benevolent people-lover who's death at the start sets off a wave of unease and turmoil throughout the small town of Pagford, and Krystal Wheedon, the tragic and foul-mouthed teen, who really emerge as the story's champions. Barry's presence - and the lack thereof - and his message that he so passionately promoted in his waking life, had a profound effect on the rest of the town as does Krystal's authentic attitude and raison d'etre.
My worry that The Casual Vacancy would be so different from Harry Potter that J.K. Rowling would be unrecognizable to me turned out to be completely unfounded. Her stamp was clearly over every inch of it - from the complex characters to the gorgeous and clever writing to the political views promoted in the story's message. And just like with Harry Potter, J.K. Rowling was able to create a story that rendered me breathless at times, so powerful were the words I had read. The ending had me gasping, sobbing, and meditating. It was simply MINDBLOWING... and a tad sickening, as well. Jo's brilliance is at full capacity in The Casual Vacancy.
Okay, okay, but as much as I thought The Casual Vacancy was brilliance personified, I can admit that it is not the book for everyone. And because I'm all about realness, I'm going to try to lay this out as plainly as possible in the hopes that anyone still on the fence about reading this may come to a decision: DO read this book if you are a mega fan of J.K. Rowling's even if this isn't the type of book you would normally read. DON'T read this book if you are turned off by strong language and graphic content. DO read this book if you are looking to read outside your comfort zone and challenge yourself. DON'T read this book if you prefer lighter, easier reads. DO read this book if you prefer character-driven stories. DON'T read this book if you prefer fast paced and action-packed plots. DO continue to read this book if you stopped and gave up reading near the beginning. DON'T read this book just because of all the hype. DO read this book if you love insightful, highly intelligent stories that make you think and leave you breathless.
The council seat left vacant by the sudden death of aptly-named Barry Fairbrother leaves the future of the The Fields, a public housing area, in question. Some residents want to disown the poverty-stricken, drug-riddled neighborhood and its residents; others want to provide support. Rowling introduces the council candidates, their supporters, their families - leaving us with too many characters, none of which are central, and not a single one of which is likable. A few are tolerable and the rest are seriously flawed or downright damaged but fall just short of being the type of characters a reader can love to hate.
The novel explores economic prejudice, hypocrisy, and the responsibilities of community. Scattered incidents of dark humor often contain insightful observations on how people interact with each other. Rowling is gifted at revealing human nature but many of her characters each possess only one characteristic - insecurity, fear, pride, self-loathing, egotism, deceitfulness, selfishness, desperation - without redeeming attributes for balance. Combined with questionable plot turns, the overall effect is a sprawling, aimless, multi-character study that tries to redeem itself in the end - but too late.
Author Rowling leaves the supernatural world behind and pens a surprisingly intricate story of the people of the small English village of Pagford. The seeming serenity of the village best known for its picturesque ruins and cobbled streets is torn asunder as a result of the sudden and unexpected death of one of the members of the parish council. The vacancy creates an increasingly tense situation as members of the council and the community size up the situation, and quickly begin plotting to fill the newly created seat with the person who will vote on the "right side" of Pagfords's social issues and community tax burdens.
Barry Fairbrother is struck down by a previously undiagnosed aneurysm on his wedding anniversary. We learn about his pivotal influence on the council and in the community from the various protagonists in the story who react to Barry's death, some with eagerness to replace him with a person more in sympathy with the "Old Pagford" sensibilities, and others who mourn the loss of such an effective catalyst who encouraged needed change in dealing with the poor of the community.
Howard Mollison is the elder statesman on the Pagford Council. He is eager to slide a candidate into the new vacancy who will be more easily influenced to vote with the Old Guard, and who better than his own son, local lawyer Miles Mollison? But there are some local citizens who are considering throwing their hats into the ring. Colin Wall, the administrator of the Winterdown Comprehensive school, has decided that he must pick up the mantel of the fallen Barry Fairbrother. But Wall has some serious paranoia issues and is very high strung.
Another Pagford citizen, Simon Price, has heard that Barry was on the take for favoring some community businesses, and feels like he should be getting in on that action himself. Simon is an abuser at home, always on the verge of uncontrolled rage and acting out if he is crossed or frustrated at home.
Dr. Parminda Jawanda is also on the parish council and has been a close ally of Fairbrother. She is eager to throw a wrench into Howard Mollison's plans and decides to back Mr. Wall.
Dr. Jawanda, Colin Wall and Simon Price each have a teenager attending the Winterdown Comprehensive School. Each of their offspring is a product of more or less dysfunctional parenting and is hostile toward their parents. Their hostility, coupled with computer skills that are far superior to their parents', leads each of the teens to try to sabotage their parent's ambitions on the council website, which is maintained by Shirley Mollison, wife of Howard and mother of Miles.
Lots more characters are pivotal in the story, which is ultimately a battle for the soul of the community of Pagford. Will the community continue to take responsibility for the ghetto which was actually founded by the neighboring larger community of Yarvil? It has now become Pagford's burden because of some murky real estate deals made by a leading citizen who sold off his fields to interested parties in Yarvil. They then turned the fields into The Fields, an urban ghetto housing welfare-dependent families, many of whom have drug habits and very few of whom have jobs.
Characters in this book are not necessarily likeable or admirable, but they are indeed interesting, and I found myself wondering how this story could possibly end well. But JK Rowling knows how to pull separate threads of a story together and build to a dramatic and surprising conclusion. I for one am so glad she has chosen to keep weaving plots and creating unique and fascinating characters.
There has been much talk about the most outwardly 'grown-up' aspects of the book, of Ms. Rowling seeking to shed her beloved queen of kid-lit mantle by donning a new one replete with sex, drugs, and violence, but the 'grown-up' aspect of the book that is perhaps the most objectionable to many Harry Potter fans is the absence of a pure distillation of good and evil. There are no clear good guys and bad guys to root for and against here. It would seem that each of the many, many characters the book depicts is marred by their own version of Harry's scar and the cumulative impact of this tableau of human frailty is not a lighthearted one.
But if you are a fan of J.K. Rowling's deft handling of the English language, of her well drawn characters and rich, descriptive writing there is much to admire here. I, myself, read every word of the some 4,099 pages of the Harry Potter series aloud to my daughters and will confess it was a rubber arm they twisted with their nightly pleas of "Just a few more pages!" I, too, wanted to know what happened next, because above all Ms. Rowling is a great storyteller and that desire to know also propelled me through the pages of The Casual Vacancy.
The story centers around the eponymous 'casual vacancy:' a seat on the village council left empty by the sudden death of one Barry Fairbrother, and the fight between two factions, an elitist, old guard hell-bent on excising a low-income housing project known as 'The Fields' from Pagford's boundaries and Barry's followers, the more progressive-minded 'pro-Fielders,' equally fervent in their commitment to save the development and its residents.
The author trains her incisive lens on each character in turn and produces unflinching images of every aspect of village life. The writing, at times, is excellent, using very real details of everyday life to create scenes and characters that are brilliant in their familiarity - the mother sweeping "crumbs from the work surface around the toaster, talking all the while," or the old gossip with news that "lay in her lap like a fat new baby to be gloated over by all her acquaintances." Several of their stories are utterly absorbing, but the book's main weakness is that there are too many of them, and the continual cycling from one storyline to the next starts to wear on the reader rather like sorting through too much dirty laundry.
This is not evil writ large, but evil on a very human scale, well-distributed on all sides, born of everyday weakness, petty jealousies and worse, boredom. There are also commonplace kindnesses. Even the most reprehensible of characters perform small acts of redemption, but in the end, good does not triumph.
On the whole, this is a well-written and courageous book. I am glad I read it, but I cannot call it 'a satisfying read.'
However, I am pretty sure that is just what the author intended. In the end, this book is an indictment of societal failure. Throughout, the late Barry Fairbrother, eminently likable, persuasive and kind, is held up as "a living example of (...)the advancement through education, from poverty to affluence, from powerlessness and dependency to valuable contributor to society" but Barry is dead, and on the books final pages another funeral strongly suggests that hope died with him. In the last sentence, as the Fields' most hopeless resident passes down the aisle, we are told that "the congregation averted its eyes." Here, Ms. Rowling seems to speak directly to those who may find the book too grim. At least, for a moment, she made you look.
What about the bad reviews? What about all the readers who put it down out of what they said was disappointment and boredom? I was not dissuaded or discouraged when I read the very first publicized negative reactions to Casual Vacancy or heard from various friends and other reviewers, “My friend started this and was bored so she put it down”. Harry Potter had such huge wide spread appeal that it makes sense that many of her former fans would give this a try or think about giving it a try, but Casual Vacancy – while nearly perfectly written in my opinion – is not a book that will have wide spread appeal. Despite my opinion on this, Casual Vacancy does have staying power and it has its own beauty. The thing about Harry Potter is that all sorts of readers consumed it. And all sorts of non-readers read it. To please that type of audience would take something like, well the Hunger Games to satisfy everyone. But that is not being fair to Harry Potter and its fans, Hunger Games (in my opinion) while fun and very good, does not come close to the brilliance of the Harry Potter series (and if you have only read the first one or two in the series, then you have no idea what I mean … read the later ones!). My point – Casual Vacancy is not a repeat of Harry Potter in terms of having wide spread appeal.
At the risk of being confusing and contradictory – Casual Vacancy is very similar to Harry Potter. Whaatttt????
For readers of the entire series of Harry Potter, I am confident what remains with them even years after reading the books are the characters – the depth of the individuals developed, their struggles with moral dilemmas, the depiction of how absolutely horrible human beings can be to others when given the opportunity, their personal losses and their small victories. That is what I remember, more than any complicated mythology behind wands and horcruxes – I remember the characters. The Harry Potter books are immense in length and the story takes 7 books to tell, because it is the characters’ stories that filled the pages.
Casual Vacancy appears to be set in a nearly perfect setting: a small town where people know each other and have for generations. This is a town that is not war torn, is not fighting a famine or dangerous gangs and is not facing a spiraling out of control crime rate. This book does not have an external pressure affecting its characters or a complicated plot line each is struggling through. What this story comes down to is just the people appearing on the pages of the book and how people live their lives, how people treat each other, and what motivates them to act. The story is told from the alternating third person point of view a large number of characters. At first, keeping track of each character is task. I actually kept a cheat sheet. However, after about 10% of the book each character was solidly embedded and I no longer needed my notes. In the beginning of the story, it first appears that all of the characters are somehow involved with one main character that has died. And yes, while that is true they have that in common, that is not really the point – the point is not their connection but their own individual stories.
The characters in Casual Vacancy are each trapped in their own universe of interests, surrounded by their own self focused motives. They cannot seem to see beyond their own pain and struggles and because of this, they don’t see those who truly need help. There are heartbreaking scenes in this book, but they are essential to go through because it is a forcing of the reader to notice the pain of others – in a way that many of us probably do not in real life. This book provides an amazing lesson to each of us and is inspiring. Stop, open our eyes, help those around us, see people from their perspective instead of judging.
Who would enjoy this book? Readers that enjoy literary fiction, character studies or societal observations . This book is not an adventure tale nor is it a story with a beginning, middle and end. It is a window into the lives of a small town – the readers get a glimpse and then it is over. Readers looking for a tight resolution, a beautiful and satisfying end, and the triumph of good over evil should not attempt Casual Vacancy. They will be disappointed. This is not a book to be skimmed, but instead it is one to be immersed in and it takes awhile to get through. So patient readers are needed as well. I plan on re-reading this book and I anxiously wait for Rowling’s next effort.
If the hope that Ms. Rowling had in writing this is to call us to action and do something about poverty in this world than hopefully she has succeeded. This is not a book that you will say was refreshing or enjoyable - if you are left with anything less than anger at the injustice of the world or sadness than she has not done her job.
The fact that I didn’t like or sympathize with any of the characters does not mean that this book is bad, or not worth reading. I did not dislike the book. I disliked the characters. Again, this is not Harry Potter where there are good guys and bad guys fighting for the fate of the world. This book culminates in one council meeting in one tiny town where the issue that has been the main focus of the plot, the closing of a methadone clinic, is never even discussed. The two deaths at the end are not meaningful sacrifices ensuring that good will overcome evil. They are senseless and could have been prevented at any number of points in the story. This is not Harry Potter. This is description of real life. It’s almost a cultural study centered on the people of Pagford. As in life, there is no black and white, good and evil, right and wrong. This is a story of the shades of grey which exist in every person in every town in the world.
Yes, I would recommend this book – but not to everyone.
At first, sink estates and drug abuse seemed a million miles from Rowling's world, but then I remembered she's involved with lots of charitable work and will have seen first hand the damage drugs can do to a family and the difference good education can make.
She clearly remembers very clearly how it felt to be a teenager, and has done some research into teenagers lives today and how they are hugely affected by new social media such as Facebook. The theme of "does she like me?" and the best friend winning the girl are as old as time though!
Just as in the Potter books, she doesn't pull her punches though so don't expect an entirely happy ending....
Yes, it's a tragedy. If you haven't read this book, yet, go in knowing it's a tragedy and don't expect a happy ending. It's a weave of many different plot lines and lots of characters and none of them end happily. There are just degrees of misery. Not a lot of fun to read. But more than that, I had a hard time finding a single character that I could latch onto as a protagonist. Every single one of them was antagonistic in one sense or another. Sure, they were interesting characters in that they were neither all good nor all bad, but none of them had any redeeming story arc, at least none that I could derive. At the end of the book, quite frankly, I was just glad it was over. Had one of those characters been relatable—flawed, certainly, but someone I could follow and connect with—I could have escaped this story less scathed. Alas, there really wasn't anybody. (The poor character of Sukhvinder Jawanda might be the closest we had, but she was so pathetic that I didn't want to relate to her.)
A word about the writing itself: passable. Nothing special. Rowling's gift is in her story telling, and I'm not 100% sure this story needed to be told (see below). Harry Potter was epic, and that in itself pulled you happily through all seven volumes. This wasn't epic at all. The only thing that pulled me through all 512 pages was a sense that I needed to see it through. Also—and this is something I felt during the last several Potter books as well—I think a writer with Rowling's presence (a billionaire with 400 million books sold) is reluctant to listen to the advice of a mere editor, or a copy editor. And as such, she fails to correct small grammar errors (commas abound) or cumbersome lines that could have been tweaked. I copied down this one line from somewhere in the middle of the book as an example: "Dreadful swooping sensations of dread were agitating his stomach..." Really? What kind of sensations of dread where they? Dreadful?
As for the aforementioned grittiness, I was disappointed. Not that I don't appreciate that in a story. Not at all. Sex, drugs, language, violence... bring 'em on. But here it felt like part of a hidden agenda, like Rowling was using that to shed her Y.A. Writer's skin. I had the sense that from the first few pages she wanted us to know that Hermione Granger didn't exist any more. From the first use of the word "f*ck" on page 14 to tawdry descriptions of online porn a few chapters later to details of rape, incest, prostitution, you name it scattered about, I got the sense that Rowling was driving a silver plated stake through Hermione's heart, a stake in the shape of a long and pointed middle finger aimed at her critics who dared to suggest she stick with stories about the boy who lived. This entire novel felt to me like Rowling telling the world she can do "adult" writing and boy you'd better believe it.
Did it work? I'm going to say, yes. She pulled it off. I'll give her credit for that. It's not a great novel, but it's good. However, if that's why she wrote this—and I'm only surmising, naturally—then I'll be very disappointed. It was a decent enough story, but I think the real test of Rowling's writerly prowess will be in what she does next, now that she doesn't have anything to prove.
Barry Fairweather, husband, father, friend and civic leader. His death leaves a vacancy on the Pagford Parish Council and it is around this vacancy that the plot twists and turns. There are no heroes, except possibly the man who died, all the other characters are very human. Much of the plot is taken up with the petty shortcomings of the other characters but there is something more subtle under the surface. It doesn't seem heroic because it's not a character, and not all the characters have it. It is love. It is what rises above all the bickering and strife. Krystal Weedon loves her little brother Robbie, Kay loves her daughter Gaia, Colin Wall loved his friend Barry as did Parminder. Mary Fairweather loved her husband.
What is difficult is to wade through all the small town, small minded blather and get to what is really important. Life isn't fair to anybody in this story; no one rises above it, but nevertheless, life goes on for most of them, tragedy is not averted for others, and in some cases small improvements are made. It's an excursion into real life, with no punches pulled. Now that I'm finished reading and the story is done, it is not the people who make it through that stay with me, it's those who don't.