October 2012, Fiction (England)
Little, Brown and Co., $35.00, 512 pages, Amazon ASIN 0316228532
I’m sure I was one of many Harry Potter fans who bought J.K. Rowling’s new adult novel, The Casual Vacancy, on day one. I decided to go ahead and review it as well, mostly because I’m sure there are other readers who have the same question I did: “If I loved Harry Potter, will I love this too?” After finishing the book I’m not certain I know the answer, but I can say that I liked it - and that in most ways it is not like Harry Potter.
The book is set in the fictional small town of Pagford, which is plunged into turmoil by the sudden death of a local councilman, Barry Fairbrother. The root issue that divides the town involves a poverty-stricken, crime-ridden area called The Fields. Some people want The Fields (and all its problems) to be subsumed into the nearby town of Yarvil. Others - including Barry Fairbrother, who grew up there - believe Pagford should keep The Fields and work to make positive changes in the lives of its residents. Barry’s newly open council seat suddenly becomes very important, and three would-be successors (two of them are presumably in favor of keeping The Fields, and one presumably against). The race brings out long-buried family problems and town rivalries, setting in motion a series of events that culminates in tragedy.
There is a huge cast of characters here, both adult and teenage. It’s just as well, because characterization is the strong point of the book. Often when there are this many people, I have trouble keeping them all straight. There are, at my count, over twenty of them that figure prominently - and I never had trouble remembering who they were. Which just goes to show what nuanced characterization can do for you. It takes some time to introduce them all, but once the set up is there, you won’t confuse them.
The question I found myself asking was whether I actually liked any of them. I didn’t ask that about the teenagers, because I liked most of them, even the ones who hated each other. My favorite, in fact, was Andrew Price - son of an abusive father who is running for the council seat in the hopes of lining his own pockets. Andrew figures out how to hack into the town’s website and posts accusations about his father - as The_Ghost_of_Barry_Fairbrother. I didn’t just like him because he was clever, but also because he was interesting and sympathetic. The adults are harder to like, mostly because most of them are well-meaning idiots (although some redeem themselves at the end), or worse, not-so-well-meaning idiots. Surprisingly, my favorite adult was Samantha Mollison, wife of one of the contenders for the council seat and daughter-in-law to Howard Mollison, Barry Fairbrother’s chief nemesis. Samantha is in her forties, generally bitchy, and obsessed with her daughter’s boy band DVD. Somehow, she’s appealing for all that.
There are a few things you should know going in, and the first is that the ending is sad. Not entirely sad, but it definitely has a tragic element. I’m not necessarily a huge fan of “sad”; let’s face it, I’m a romance reader for a reason. However, there are positive things that arise out of the tragedy which is what redeems the book for me. If there’s any type of book I avoid like the plague, it’s a book that is pointlessly sad. The other thing you should know its that the language is frank and that there’s sex (mostly not the romantic variety). This is of course a huge departure from the YA Harry Potter books, but it makes sense. And I couldn’t help thinking that Andrew’s endless obsession about his crush was probably more spot-on than Harry’s much less graphic fantasies about Ginny. He was seventeen; we all know what he was really thinking.
All in all, I enjoyed the book. It was a departure from my typical reading and a departure from the Rowling the YA author. I found it interesting, compelling, and ultimately satisfying. But other than a dead-on portrayal of the teenage psyche, there are few similarities between The Casual Vacancy and the wildly popular Harry Potter series. Whether this catches your fancy will likely depend more on your enjoyment of general fiction than anything else.
-- Blythe Barnhill
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