Does this sound about right? “Rowling’s refusal to conform to happy endings demonstrates the fact that The Casual Vacancy is not meant to be entertainment. She wants to deal with real-life issues, not the fantasy world to which women writers are often confined. Her ambition is to create a portrait of the complexity of ordinary human life: quiet tragedies, petty character failings, small triumphs, and quiet moments of dignity. The complexity of her portrait of provincial society is reflected in the complexity of individual characters. The contradictions in the character of the individual person are evident in the shifting sympathies of the reader. One moment, we pity Stuart, the next we judge him critically.”
Actually, that’s a summary of Eliot’s Middlemarch with a few names and tenses changed (actual quote from SparkNotes). Some online reviewers, especially those who read the free previews, have rated this book low on Amazon and elsewhere and stated that it was boring so they did not continue. These reviews may be translated as “tl;dr” comments. The readers might say the same of Middlemarch.
Many of the early professional reviews also seem to me to miss the mark, perhaps because the reviewer had to read the book in a few hours with a phalanx of Little, Brown lawyers on hand. They seem to have skimmed for easy quotes and have missed much of the context that situates what they’ve plucked from the text. Like some of the the sample-only readers, they have not taken the very obvious cues of the novel’s opening that it will build gradually. Unlike the Harry Potter series, this is not action/adventure, or even mystery.
The Casual Vacancy indeed starts slowly. Because the novel at first presents itself as a comedy of manners, it’s no surprise that Rowling takes some time to introduce the large cast of characters as they first react to Barry's death. While most people are initially socially appropriate (at least in public), the death inspires both noble and self-serving thoughts. Like the people of Pagford, the reader only discovers these aspirations and interpretations as the story and relationships unfold. The vacancy left by Barry turns out to be anything but casual.
We see families interacting with their members and with other families. The genre gradually shifts to become more plot- and action-driven as thoughts become deeds, sometimes not for the better. The reader sees several slow train wrecks in the offing as events inexorably roll on.
This is not a happy book, and it is not uplifting. Most of the characters are unlikable, though as their stories unfold, their complexity in some cases increases the reader’s sympathy and identification. There is a great deal of swearing, shagging, smoking, and drug use (none of which would have been particularly shocking from another author). There are many mean, small-minded acts. Yet none of this is glamorized (most of it falls in the faintly absurd to somewhat gross spectrum), and it is matched by many characters’ sad evaluations of their own relationships, longing to be closer to (or farther from) other people, agony over acne and hair, helplessness, and fear. People wish they had each others’ families. Triangulation, insults, secrets, and violence occur behind closed doors. Rowling realistically depicts pettiness, teenage angst, teen and adult posturing, and the sometimes stifling and intrusive nature of small towns and their politics. It is like being at your social services job day and night. It is depressing. It is also very funny, though this is only occasionally presented in character’s actions and is more frequently evident in surprising adjectives, comparisons, or characters’ thoughts that veer from what is expected. There are, though, events that are deeply, wonderfully absurd, and all the more so for the earnestness and self-absorption with which they are enacted.
Grief is a constant theme--grief for lost people and lost opportunities. Rage, both acute and simmering, appears time and again. The major actions catalyzed by Barry’s death and its initial implications can be characterized as The Long Secret meets anti-Potter. What happens when teenagers take matters into their own hands? Generally speaking, the outcome is not good. Where Harry saves his world, the adolescents of Pagford destroy it. Most of the adults, who strive to assuage their inchoate longings with gossip, sexy boy bands, and reading posts by Barry’s ghost, and who regularly misinterpret motives and are often wounded by each other, are no better or more mature. More complex than Harry Potter, this story ends without tidy wrap-ups, and more like The Rocky Horror Picture Show. The ghost indeed exacts his due, though Jesus-like Barry might be horrified by this misuse of his legacy.
Barry’s saintliness probably would have showed more tarnish had he been alive and present through the book; he serves as a symbol of, among other things, the other characters’ longing for a Jesus-like figure to hold their need for absolution. However, redemptions are few and far between, with the only unequivocal example being the river-dunking of Sukhvinder Jawanda.
A few criticisms:
Like the Harry Potter series, this is structured as a chiasmus. The reader who guesses or observes this may find the events of the end of the book too predictable.
After the second incident, the third time a teen trashed an adult online seemed reductive and mechanical.
While I’m not familiar with UK law, I will imagine that had Parminder Jawanda aided Howard during a medical emergency, she would have been in the clear. Why Kay would violate a client’s confidentiality several times, with no consequences, I cannot say, but it seemed like an easy way for Rowling to share information without straightforward exposition.
Exposition is one of Rowling’s stylistic weaknesses in Harry Potter, and there was still much telling rather than showing here. However, The Casual Vacancy is an improvement. Characters have more interiority, and even though this sometimes has the feel of interior exposition (as when Fats ruminates over an “authenticity” most reminiscent of Sartre’s Nausea, there is somewhat less told about the characters by an impersonal narrator. The shifts of perspective throughout the novel contribute immensely to Rowling’s ability to give us characters in action rather than words about characters and pronouncements about their actions. In this regard, it's better than Harry Potter.
A story worth listening to ,would be first and second loose the dirty words that are not needed but there only to show a reader that J.K.Rowlings knows a lot of dirty words. It is as if she is seeing who wins the dirty word game.
Write an actual story.
Had a plot and storyline to work with.
Every one of them.
"A truly good book teaches me better than to read it. I must soon layout down, and commence living on its hint. what I began by reading, I must finish by acting" -Henry David Thoreau
Absolutely fantastic book! Terrific writing and a true departure. I was hesitant at first to pick up this book because I wanted more Potter books but I am so very glad I gave The Casual Vacancy a chance. It's a slow and steady burn that before you realize you are totally sucked into the lives of the characters.
I hesitate to say more because I do not want to give anything away, but I will say The Casual Vacancy is a thought provoking journey through society and translates weather you live in Pagford, UK Smalltown, USA or wherever you live, it speaks to parts of ourselves we like and hold a mirror up to the parts we wish we didn't see.
The characters were all rich and interesting.
My favorite character is Crystal. She is one of the few really good people in the book.
I think that he did a great job creating all the characters.
The entire ending.
Once the death occurs, which is early on in the book the remainder (and please note that I couldn't finish it) is boring and there are so many characters it becomes very difficult to follow.
The narration was great, but that alone could not convince me to keep listening beyond part 1 of 3.
powerful, thought-provoking, humorous
I certainly wouldn't compare it to Harry Potter, which many reviewers have...
I thought Hollander was a superb reader. Many complained that they couldn't keep the characters straight. I had no problem knowing who I was hearing thanks to Hollander's rendition of each voice. If I had to choose a favorite, I'd say Krystal Wheedon or Howard Mollison.
Love to Bungee!!
I did not read any of the Harry Potter series because of their length, but I decided to give J K Rowling's new book a try. I was not disappointed in the slightest. From the very beginning Rowling has the listener's interest and Tom Hollander's narration is superb. The cast of characters is fairly extensive, but the threads of the story are easy to follow. Despite its length it was very hard to stop listening. I look forward to Rowling's next novel.
Brave, universal, contemplative
While the story takes place in a small west country village in Britain, it could be anywhere. It certainly could be any community (especially if it has gates) in the United States. This is a book about class separation and distinctions, greed, poverty, lack of opportunity. It fits today's "me first, me only" attitude perfectly. If you are looking for a fairy tale you will not find it here. These people are not perfect, far from it. Not all unselfish efforts are rewarded, rarely in fact. Is that depressing, or is it reality? Anyone who has ever been involved in community affairs will quickly recognize these folks, flaws and all. Rowling's background clearly informs her writing in this book.
There is one death (out of a number) in the book that is very moving but I will not detail it as it would spoil the book.
Yes, but it's long, complex with many characters one of which has two names depending on the speaker. The book requires concentration.
If you have trouble understanding English, English this might be problematic. While it's not all that important you know what "rounders" is Rowling did not dumb down the authentic west country style of speech for the American market, a good thing. The "rough" language is plentiful and authentic.
If you give it a chance this book gives you much to think about and an opportunity to examine your own actions and attitudes in your community. Have any of us made our world a better place for others without a payoff for ourselves? Far too few I would imagine and I include myself in that.
Casual Vacancy is a beautifully written work of art. Nothing has been missed in the story. No storyline was neglected. Every character and every scene is perfectly orchestrated to completion. Reading Casual Vacancy is like eating that perfect meal. It starts off with an explosion of flavor, akin to a beautifully prepared appetizer and from there Rowling guides the reader through a perfectly told story that is nicely sustained. A good story is one that the reader does not want to put down, but is not forced to rush through. It is a story that once over, its characters will be missed. And once completed, the storyline line and messages are still being contemplated in the minds of its readers. This is the brilliance of Casual Vacancy.
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.
Reading is one of life's greatest pleasures...and, now that I've found audiobooks, I can read even while performing mundane tasks!
If you're a Harry Potter fan, then you'll understand when I say that reading "The Casual Vacancy" is like reading a novel set entirely in Little Whinging. If you haven't read the Potter books, suffice it to say that throughout this listen I felt as if I were driving by a tragic car wreck...and just couldn't look away. The characters are real and flawed. The story is dark and raw. The plot twists kept me guessing. I didn't particularly love any of the characters, and yet I was drawn to them, and I wanted to know how things would turn out for them. But there was no relief from the meanness and pettiness of ordinary life in a small town like one finds in the Potter books, no Hagrid or Dumbledore popping in to whisk us away to the world of magic and adventure. Not that I was expecting that. I knew what I was getting myself into. But I couldn't help wishing for such a thing throughout the listen. Still, I resonated with the social commentary, and I found J. K. Rowling's writing to be just as satisfying as I always have. The narration was highly enjoyable. Tom Hollander did a great job of portraying each character with a distinct voice.