Thursday, January 3, 2013

The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling

[description from goodreads]

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 fa├žade 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?


Like the rest of the world, I waited for J.K. Rowling's follow-up to the Harry Potter series with much anticipation but not too much hope that it would actually happen. But then it did! Seemingly out of nowhere. The only reason I remembered it came out is because I went to the signing for it* and I didn't even get a chance to read it until months later, on my plane ride home from college. It made for a good plane read because the book is long, at 503 pages, and my flight was even longer. Plus, it is a plain good read-- my like for it is definitely not up to my level of love for Harry Potter, but could anything, especially something by the same author, ever even hope to compare? 

I really don't think The Casual Vacancy stood a chance. Comparisons to Harry Potter were inevitable and unavoidable, even though this book is entirely different. It's actually something that is rather up my alley. As much as I complain about books with no plot, or plots that begin slowly, at heart I really do prefer smaller stories about realistic, even commonplace, events. And that's exactly what this book is-- an examination of one small town after the death of one important man. It does take a while to get to the more interesting consequences of his death, just because there are so many people's perspectives to retrieve, but the fallout is fascinating. There's a gradual reveal of just how much power Barry wielded over certain people, and with the knowledge of his power comes similar revelations about the true nature of people's ambitions and feelings about one another. It's endlessly interesting to me to see how tense situations bring out the characters' best and worst sides. 

However, with my love of smaller stories comes a preference for small casts, and that is surely not something The Casual Vacancy has. There's actually an overwhelming number of people in this book. Of course, with more characters comes the chance to explore a wider variety of social issues, but I could have done without a few of this book's characters. I couldn't even keep the fifteen or so main names straight, let alone their relationships with one another, which really prevented me from establishing any emotional connection with them. And with all the issues this book tries to tackle-- social class tension, politics, poverty, etc.-- I think I needed the emotional connection to make them as influential as they were intended to be. 

It's often so ambitious it can't keep up with itself, but The Casual Vacancy is undoubtedly a fascinating exploration of small town and the secrets its inhabitants can't hope to keep from each other. 

*Have I told you about the time I met J.K. Rowling and it was magical? Because it was. 
**For example, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is one of my favorites. 

Book details: Little, Brown/Hardcover/$35.00

Source: bought


  1. I haven't felt compelled to pick this one up...I think the many negative reviews I've read have had an influence on me. I keep getting the impression that, if it wasn't a J.K. Rowling book, I probably wouldn't read it anyway--and so I haven't.

    Glad to hear you mostly enjoyed it though.

  2. I had a similar experience with the book - it certainly lacked the magic of Harry Potter, but a book about small town gossip is rather to my liking, so I enjoyed it well enough. Well said.

  3. I've put this on hold for now, I got 50 pages in and found it sooo boring. I knew it wouldn't have the literal magic of HP, but I was still hoping for some Rowling magic. From what I've read, it's not in there.

  4. A book that kept coming back to me as I read was Joseph Heller's Something Happened. I can't think of another instance where an author from whom so much was expected took on the profoundly risky task of reminding us that there is nothing more human than the mundane.

    Marlene Detierro (Tony Lama Cowboy Boots