As book titles go, The Casual Vacancy is pretty appropriate. Not only because a casual vacancy — a seat on a local city council made suddenly available by the unexpected death of its holder — is the circumstance around which J.K. Rowling’s latest novel revolves, but also because somehow this particular turn of phrase seems to define book itself: unceremoniously lackluster.
In light of the array of negative reviews that have already been written about TCV, I feel like I should start off with two editor’s notes. The first is that I’ve spent a fair amount of time daydreaming about what it would be like to be J.K. Rowling (like circa 2005, not during all that poor-person business) and so I sympathize with how difficult it must have been (in a first-world-problems sort of way) to even consider writing another book after the conclusion of the Harry Potter series. In Rowling’s place, I would have been sorely tempted to rest on my laurels (my $1 billion laurels) and hang it up Harper Lee style. I mean, we’re talking about the literary equivalent of Adele’s sophomore album (ignoring for the purposes of analogy that 21 was actually the sophomore album) — I’d at least have considered writing under a pen name.
I also want to note that I did not go into The Casual Vacancy expecting some sort of reprise of Harry Potter. I like to read about books before I buy them, and it was fairly widely reported that TCV was to be Rowling’s first grown-up novel , and therefore ostensibly not about magical candies and invisibility cloaks. (In other words, not like when R.L. Stine wrote Superstition, and it was basically just a longer Fear Street book with sex scenes.) I appreciate that Harry Potter will always be a thing unto itself, and that perhaps Rowling might have wanted to get as far away from the fantasy genre as possible, to forestall any potential murmurings about trying to best her own series.
All that said, I did have relatively lofty expectations for The Casual Vacancy, in the sense that I know Rowling can tell a good story. So it’s unfortunate that she seems to have declined to do just that. TCV follows an ensemble cast of characters from Pagford, a small English town of the type where everyone knows each other. Early in the novel, Pagford parish councilman Barry Fairbrother dies suddenly (no intrigue, just a brain aneurysm), thereby vacating his seat on the council. Eager to take his place are a handful of the town’s men, each representing a particular agenda. It is these men, and their colleagues and wives and children and parents, around whom The Casual Vacancy revolves, and the book includes within itself myriad anecdotal subplots outlining each character’s own back story, motives and innermost thoughts.
If the intricacies of small-town political machinations don’t sound like the stuff of page-turners (No “The Bourne Mid-Term Elections,” is there?), it’s because they aren’t. Although TCV is pleasant to read, it is slowly paced, peppered with flashbacks and asides, and lacking in substance what it offers in detail. As a series of character studies, the book is nearly flawless, but as a cohesive and engrossing story, it falls short. Not like “WTF, did Hagrid write this?” short, but short of my admittedly high expectations.
Simultaneously stripped of the context of JKR’s previous books, and put into the context of its brethren in the fiction genre, The Casual Vacancy is neither remarkably great nor remarkably bad. The pacing, the deep explorations of individual characters — at the expense, perhaps, of any discernible forward momentum — is reminiscent of Jonathan Franzen, or a simplified Zadie Smith. And like those books, TCV uses its characters not to advance rising and falling action, but to explore various themes of the human condition — prejudice, ego, depression, infatuation, discord. (There’s also some awkward teenage sex.)
The important thing is that if you loved Harry Potter, there is absolutely zero guarantee that you will love, or even particularly care for, The Casual Vacancy. It’s a different kind of book, and all taunting of readers who didn’t bother to figure this out ahead of time is completely warranted. Ultimately, TCV is in the company of much more mature, almost sprawling fare: books like The Corrections, The Believers, and We Were the Mulvaneys. It’s almost painfully true to life, and its characters are as developed as any Hermione or Ron (jury’s still out on Dumbledore and Snape though). But the novel is also rather plodding, and mostly suffers from being forgettable.
Still, to J.K. Rowling I say: don’t sweat the negative reviews. At the end of the day, you’re still J.K. Freaking Rowling, and there was almost no way this was going to go smoothly. You created Every Flavor Beans. The Floo Network. GOBLINS WHO RUN BANKS. On the one hand, we couldn’t realistically have expected something more compelling than the Harry Potter series, and on the other, you could write a white paper on campaign finance reform and I at least would feel compelled by curiosity to read it. The Casual Vacancy is a nicely executed microcosm, a snow globe of a novel. So you didn’t invent another fictional universe with magic spells and mythical creatures and deftly executed allegories to political unrest? I guess I can let that slide.
TITLE: The Casual Vacancy
AUTHOR: J.K. Rowling
ALSO WROTE: Harry Potter duhhhh
SORTA LIKE: The Northern Clemency meets The Corrections
FIRST LINE: “Barry Fairbrother did not want to go out to dinner.”