Review: A Casual Vacancy, J. K. Rowling

Y’all know what I hate? I hate it when reviewers say shit like this:

Chances are none of these people will be deemed sufficiently “likable” by the pop-culture-coddled, uplift-craving audience that makes up a goodly portion of Rowling fandom. But hats off to her for not toning things down an iota in order to please them.

It’s irritating when a reviewer implies that people who didn’t like a book she liked are somehow a less virtuous kind of reader than she is (in this case, the kind of reader who doesn’t want to think about Important Social Issues); or to suggest that she knows why all the people who didn’t like a book didn’t like it. Don’t patronize me, Laura Miller! I don’t patronize you for wailing and gnashing your teeth over the discovery that CS Lewis’s books were influenced by his ideology just like the books of every author in the history of time. The people in A Casual Vacancy aren’t likable, as it happens, but as I have previously pointed out, the problem for me isn’t unlikable but unliked. I know this is true in the case of J. K. Rowling’s book because I occasionally had flashes of not minding the characters, and these always occurred because someone else in the story was displaying evidence of liking them. And the only character who liked most of the other characters died on page 3.

And really, it’s not because the characters do bad things. I like complicated characters in books. But these characters are near-uniformly hateful to everyone, and just, that is not how human people are. Even pretty awful people are sometimes kind. Even psychopathic killers have been nice to someone, and you know this is true because whenever there is a horrific massacre someone comes forward and says “He was also so polite and kind when he came in to my store for a large supply of Twix candies.” Being perpetually hateful does not make a character any more complicated than being perpetually good would, but it somehow gets a pass where a character of perfect virtue would be ripped to critical shreds.

The characters are also — and this, I think, is a fault of the book and not an incompatibility between the type of book it is and the type of reader I am — difficult to tell apart. There are a lot of them, all called things like Maureen and Shirley, and since nobody likes anybody else and they all spend their time gossiping about each other and resenting their spouses and parents and children, it’s hard to feel that it is even worthwhile trying to tell them apart. I kept having to flip back and check which asshole husband and which disaffected teens went with the mom who had the crush on the tweeny rock group.

Also a fault of the book (in my opinion): The ending. I’m so indignant about this ending! To the highlightable text for an indignant discussion! So at the end, the underprivileged girl takes her little brother out and goes to have sex with her school sex friend, but they’re having too much sex to pay attention to the underprivileged toddler so he wanders out and falls in the river and drowns, and then the underprivileged girl is so heartbroken she commits suicide. This all happens very suddenly right at the end and frankly feels like Rowling’s cheaty way of putting a tidy end to that storyline without its feeling unfairly optimistic. The messy but real thing — the outcome that the story earned — would be that the drug clinic would close, and the mother would relapse, and Child Protection would take Krystal and Robbie away and put them in separate homes. The ending Rowling uses is just so preachy and fakey and manipulatively heartstringsy, to the point that I, who am pretty softhearted, was too irritated to get heartstrings-tugged by it. I will accept a too-tidy happy ending, with reservations, but I will get very gripey about a too-tidy unhappy ending.

That said, this isn’t my kind of book, and I doubt I’d have liked it even if the characters were perfectly distinguishable and the ending a tour-de-force. I do not care for books about everyone being hateful to everyone else in petty undermining ways. I don’t care if Laura Miller does turn up her nose at me. I like books in which people are kind to each other, like Les Miserables. I tear up every time I read that whole first part about the priest and I don’t care if you judge me.

I did love that the book had a layered portrayal of the problems of poverty: not presenting easy solutions, and not sentimentalizing people, and not giving a pass to the people who refuse to see the layers of problems that lead to poverty. And if I didn’t already love J. K. Rowling forever (WHICH I DO; let there never be any mistake about that; cf., my entire childhood), I would love her forever for writing a book in which the child protection worker is not only not evil and malicious, but is actually going out of her way to help her clients. And even the subsidiary child protection worker, who does not go out of her way to help her clients, is not portrayed as an evil person. Just overworked and exhausted.

(Shut up, entire rest of fiction including film, comics, and especially TV shows. Child protection workers are not evil, and they are not conspiring to take your protagonists’ kids. Nobody wants your protagonists’ rotten kids.)

Other reviews: These from the Book Blogs Search Engine. Iris has an interesting post about the release of the book; Amy has some thoughts about YA vs adult literature vis-a-vis Casual Vacancy; Natalie posted reading updates culminating in a review; Kerry is doing a readalong; and Alice loves the book so far and thinks I’m wrong (but I am very curious what she will make of the ending).

32 thoughts on “Review: A Casual Vacancy, J. K. Rowling

  1. Ugh, that reviewer you quoted is awful! Some serial killer should hand her a twix bar. I already decided I wasn’t going to read the book after reading the top of your review (and also learning from the review blurb that it was uplifty- ha ha) but I also read your spoiler section and that was just OVER THE TOP. Not over the top that you HAD a spoiler section, mind you, but the CONTENT of it. But as you may know, I am ever so always grateful when I find out there is a book out there I DON’T need to rush out and read or feel stressed and guilty about because I HAVEN’T read it, so, wonderful review! :–)

    • She’s not! She’s really not, it’s Laura Miller and she’s often lovely. That was just a particularly irritating review snippet.

      Yeah, the misery of this book was really over the top, and the ending made me roll my eyes — not the reaction you want when you write a story that culminates in the death of two children.

      You are more than welcome for sparing you the nuisance of reading this one! I live to serve!

  2. Well, not going to rush out & read that one, then! There are stacks of them everywhere; the ones I saw last night had a huge “40% Off!!!” sign on them. Do you think they over-printed that first run? ;-)

    I don’t do utterly bleak, unless there’s some redeeming quality somewhere in either gorgeous writing or memorable characters. Sounds like Rowling gets a fail on both of those. And the spoiler – wow. Total downer. Yuck. :-0

    Just curious – have you ever read Monica Dickens’ “Kate and Emma”? If not, please do. I think you would find it an antidote to “Casual Vacancy”, though it’s not at all a happy story. I highly recommend it – fictionally addresses some very “real world” issues very non-judgmentally. And the child protection workers are given the courtesy of even-handed portrayal. Very good book. (I’m a HUGE Monica Dickens fan, by the way, just so you know. :-) )

    • I think my caveat for “utterly bleak” has to do with a gripping plot. I am really a plot girl at heart. I yearn and yearn for glorious plots.

      I read Kate and Emma lo these many years ago (four), and I….liked parts of it. But it was a smidge grim for me in the end, reports Past Jenny (I actually don’t remember it very well). It bums me out when terrible things happen to children.

  3. THANK YOU. I’ve liked many an awful character but a whole book of hateful, gossipy characters, all of them like that, sorry, but no. I realize I don’t have the right to comment because I haven’t read this book but I just get turned off by spiteful characters. One or two or a group of them in a book that contained other, good-hearted ones as well is different.

    • YOU ARE WELCOME. I sometimes feel that the world is trying to make me feel guilty for not enjoying reading about hateful characters so I appreciate the validation. Why not write some semi-pleasant characters? It is just as easy and surely must be more enjoyable.

  4. I haven’t been attentive to the reviews of this novel, but I really appreciate it when a reviewer discusses not only the kind of reader who likely will respond positively to a work but the kind of reader who likely will not.

    Maybe I agree with them and maybe I don’t (after I’ve read it myself, I mean), but either way it tells me a lot about the reviewer, about the kinds of things that they value in a book, and that, along with what they actually say about it, helps me to decide if there’s a match to be made between me as a reader and the book they’re discussing. It works for me!

    I’m sorry to hear that you didn’t enjoy this one more; it’s a long one by the looks of it and no doubt you’re thinking of all the books you’d rather’ve read instead.

    • The “kind of reader” thing is something that I think about a lot. I recognize that I have biases in certain directions — I tend to like books that are full of plot, and I tend to be less critical of the plots of that sort of book because I’m so disposed to enjoy them. Whereas books about gossip and not much happening are not my cup of tea.

      I didn’t mind the length! I am used to it from Rowling, and I got on to other things pretty quickly.

  5. I haven’t read this book, and although I am intrigued by it, from the reviews I’ve read, and times I’ve dipped into it in the bookshop, I just can’t see myself getting through it. Sounds incredibly, over-the-toply bleak, and also as though Rowling has crammed every single thing into the book that would be taboo in her previous writing. I’m sure I’ll read it eventually, but I’m in no hurry for it right now.

    • Yes! It is like that! I’m sure Rowling wasn’t thinking she had to cram every miserable thing in, but that is how it comes off. Every unpleasant, unsympathetic thing. It got very wearing to read after a while.

  6. I want to read this but keep putting it off. So many people are talking about it right now I’m not sure what to think about it. Hearing how hateful the characters were turned me off initially but now I’m curious. Besides, small town politics amuse me.

  7. “Being perpetually hateful does not make a character any more complicated than being perpetually good would, but it somehow gets a pass where a character of perfect virtue would be ripped to critical shreds.” YES. Exactly precisely. Excellent point!

    Also, did we recently talk about the priest in Les Miz? Because I was just saying that exact thing to Captain Hammer.

  8. I have no particular interest in reading this not because the characters don’t sound likable but because they sound unlikable in boring ways. I love a book filled with people I don’t like, but it’s better if at least some of them are epically bad, like Count Olaf or Hannibal Lector bad or something. In other words, interesting. The people in this book don’t sound interesting.

    And I agree utterly with your remarks about child protection workers. I used to have a job that required me to deal with CPS workers once in a while, and they are not evil. Maybe not all of them are good at their jobs, but most of the ones I’ve met are in it to help parents give their kids a better environment. The rest of fiction needs to get with the program, IMO.

  9. OMG, I hate that too (referring to your first paragraph). And vice versa, when reviewers imply that anyone who likes a book they didn’t must be a superficial and/or gullible idiot. I *still* feel resentment/crankiness about the way some bloggers wrote about Tender Morsels.

    Ahem.

    I’m one of the v few people our age who fell out of love w HP & Rowling, so I doubt I’ll ever read this. But that ending would have annoyed me too.

  10. I haven’t heard many good things about this book, and have had little urge to read it. I don’t like hateful characters, but you make a good point about the hateful characters in this book being nuanced, and I like that. I am still on the fence about this one, but it makes me sad that Rowling resorted to making unimpressive and interchangeable characters in her first foray out of Hogwarts. Sad, I tell you! It makes me sad!

  11. You are the second person I know to have read this, and the second person I know not to have liked it. Alas – the New Yorker article about Rowling made this sound reasonably promising! Well. I’m currently number 371 on the library hold list (and the library has 145 copies) and I guess if everyone were liking it I’d be dying of impatience, but as it is I don’t mind waiting.

  12. I don’t know what to do!!! I wasn’t much interested in this, but then Natalie said it was lewd, and I was all “hello! J.K. does lewd??” and I was thinking I’d read it after all, but now I’m back on the meh fence.

  13. Ohmigosh, I LOVE Jill’s comment above. LOVE that she wanted to read the book because it had lewd-potential but now does not feel the lewd-potential outweighs the “meh-ness” factor.

    I also liked YOUR review, of course :-)

  14. I actually ended up liking the book more than I thought I would but I completely sympathize with and understand your points. I mean it’s not even like I feel like I need to keep it, it will be leaving my house if I ever finish writing my review.

  15. I was involved in a discussion at Jeanne’s site that was (well the part I was in) concerned with the way Rowling’s characters can easily slide into caricature. I think you can get away with that in children’s books where the reader more readily accepts the good vs evil thing. But it’s problematic in adult fiction, where on the whole the fuller the characterisation the better the story.

  16. Interesting review, Jenny! I was thinking yesterday on whether I should get ‘The Casual Vacancy’. Then I thought that I will try borrowing it from the library. I haven’t decided what to do yet, but after reading your review, I am thinking of borrowing it from the library :)

    I think Rowling was brave to try writing adult fiction, but I agree with what litlove has said above – it is not the same as YA fiction. Even when we enjoy reading both, we expect different things from both. The ending does sound a bit simplistic and deliberate and artificial. I hope Rowling improves with her next book for grownups. I loved what you said about the review in Salon :)

  17. You have almost convinced me that it is time for me to do a re-read of Les Miz. I read Les Miserables in HighSchool 1) because I was going to read a Very Important LONG Book of Classic that the cheerleaders would NOT read because it was LONG and 2) NOT read a girl-choice such as P&P or Blubbering Heights per all the cheerleaders in said HighSchool. I blubber-ed my way through and gave my heart to Les Miserables in HighSchool.
    I still have zero interest in reading TCV.
    I adore your posts. It brings out the booksnob in me somehow, though and I both like and am appalled.

  18. I was thinking about this book today, so took the opportunity when I was in the city to casually wander up to the A Casual Vacancy display in Coles and read the first few & last few pages, plus a skimming visit of the central block. And my lightning verdict is “meh”. (As my teen son would say.) Wasn’t tempted to shell out whatever the price was – $30-ish? – for the dubious joy of ownership. I know if I wait 6 months this one will be cheap & abundant at the Sally Ann, if I want to further my cultural literacy with regards to JKR.

  19. I hate that, too, when reviewers are sure that anyone who doesn’t like the book must dislike it because they are insufficiently intellectual (Odd; there aren’t many reviews that say “If you don’t like this, it must be because you hate fun).

    Of course, I must admit, she’s partly right. I am an “uplift-craving” reader. I like books where I like the characters, and I prefer books with happy endings.

    For which reason, I’m unlikely to ever read A Casual Vacancy. It’s a pity. I liked the Harry Potter books (not loved, but liked) and was kind of curious to see what an experienced, settled, sure-of-herself Rowling would write and what sort of new universes she might create. Of course, she might still make a new universe, some day.

  20. I just don’t know if I want to read this one or not. I love, love, love the Harry Potter books but I’m not sure that I even want to give this one a try. I’m still undecided after reading your thoughts…instead I think I shall go reread Harry Potter. Sounds much better!

  21. This book sounds very personal to me when I think of Rowling’s past life before she became rich. Just for that alone I would want to read it. I am a huge fan of Rowling, not just for her books, but also her personality.

    That said, that ending you highlighted in your post is just disappointing. I am not a fan of books where children die….so yes, I guess I am an uplift-craving reader as that reviewer put it.

  22. As you know I have this on my shelves but I cannot get myself to read it. Perhaps in a year or so. Meanwhile, my expectations are so low that I’m hoping to be pleasantly surprised (that’s a contradiction, but I can’t make it sound less contradictory).

  23. I know I will probably read this eventually for curiosity’s sake, but now I’m almost dreading it because I do not like books about mean people either. It’s like this book I just read for my in-person book club, Dare Me, which had this horrible, manipulative, wretched girl in it who made me want to just hurl the book across the room as I was reading. Boo to mean people.

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