I am a Harry Potter fan, but I have never considered myself a J.K. Rowling fan. I’ll only say I love an author if I’ve read multiple works and enjoyed the majority of them. Until a few years ago, that wasn’t an option with Rowling.
When The Casual Vacancy came out in 2013, a lot of Harry Potter fans jumped for it, even as critics said, “It’s very different.”
I knew that, but I wanted to give her a chance as an author, to see if I liked her and not just this one world she’d created, so I knew I would read it eventually. Now that I have, I’ve got to say…I’m still not a fan.
After my experience with Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, I expected the story to have a slow start. I gave it time, but I was 80% through the book before I reached a spot where all I wanted to do was read. It’s all about a small town full of miserable people making each other miserable.
She tells it from multiple perspectives in order to humanize every character, but it instead gave me the impression that each of the adults was self-absorbed and didn’t care what damage they were causing, even to their own kids.
For the most part, the kids aren’t much better. (Though with these people raising them, how could they be?) I don’t have a problem with unlikable characters, but if you’re asking us to read 500 pages about them, they should at least be compelling. The only one I rooted for, the one I kept reading for, was Krystal Wheedon. And instead of being treated like a character, she often acted as a plot device and catalyst for events around her. This was so much the case that some of her actions towards the end, while not completely out-of-character, felt like a stretch. And the ending!
I have reached a point in my life where I under the place tragedy has in literature. Even character death, as Rowling herself demonstrated beautifully in Harry Potter, can be important in a narrative. The Casual Vacancy begins with a death that sets every other event into motion, which makes sense and works well as an opening. But it also ends with death, and this was the one I had a problem with. Instead of focusing on the tragedy itself, Rowling shows us the effect it has on every other character. That made me angry.
Many of the families were brought closer in the wake of it. Where the first death started a war, this one enacted a ceasefire. It’s not because they are comforting each other, but seems to be out of shock. It is a fragile peace; they are all still miserable, but different miserable, or else they’ve just gone back to taking it quietly. I was left with the impression that the death would not have a lasting impact on many of them.
It took me over a month to read this book and some spots were especially hard to read because of how heavy they were. There are books like that I would recommend, but The Casual Vacancy isn’t one of them. There are a few pretty lines, but there is not emotional payoff in the end; it’s just not worth the struggle.