Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Review of "The Casual Vacancy" by JK Rowling

After eight months, I've had the luxury to start a reread of this novel and as such, I've had more than half a year to reflect on my thoughts and refine them. My original review is still in the black below, and it still stands, but my 'real' one is in the red. Enjoy!

Dun. Dun dun dun. Dun dun dun. Dun dun dun. (I'm mimicking trumpets, for those who don't know.)

I. Have. Finished. The. Book.


My Spoiler-Free Review

Let's get the nitty-gritty out of the way:

4.5/5 Stars

First off:

Don't even TRY reading this book expecting to find Harry Potter. I've seen way too many professional reviewers get all upset at its 'non-happy' Harry Potterness.

This book's Amazon rating (2.8/5) is mostly due to the book's a) price b) malfunctioned Kindle formatting or c) "It's not freaking Harry Potter."


It is not freaking Harry Potter.

I wanted to give this a 5/5, but the beginning was just too boring, probably because it was convoluted with different viewpoints. However, once the book gets on, you remember all the characters, because their personalities are so distinct, and the transitions are smoothly done. It's amazing!

I guess, I GUESS, the characters were unlikable, as some, too-used-to-awesome-Harry-Potter-characters people say, but, the best part about this book was the characters. I only disliked two of them.

The book moves smoothly though the characters' viewpoints, and whenever you read from one previously-hated-perspective, you wonder, "Is this the same character I hated? Why am I sympathizing with him/her now?" You cheer them on, and shake them angrily as well. Everyone is painted with one broad stroke of gray -- and it is a beautiful rendition.

Barry Fairweather is the shining beacon of morality in this book, and once he dies (it's in the synopsis, people, so not a spoiler) most of the town is devastated. He was the leader for the adults and teenagers, those young people against whom so much is done in this book. We are desperate for, and long for, Barry's return. He would fix everything, if only he came back.

During the scene in the end, I felt a little cheated (which soon wore off once the next scenes took their full courses). I don't cry, in books, movies, anything, so that might be why I felt underwhelmed. Heck, I didn't even tear up writing the (extremelllyyy) tragic/bittersweet conclusions of my two novels. I feel bad, because JK Rowling said she would have nothing to say to those who didn't cry :( (Please, please talk to me, Jo. It'd make my life.) It was a very sad ending though.

And oh boy, you thought JK Rowling loved her adverbs. Now she's in love with parenthetical sides "(...)". However, the biggest critique I had for Harry Potter was that I wasn't too fond of her writing style, but good gosh, her writing in this book is luscious.Her command of the language is to be admired; she can write without a doubt. Beautiful prose.

This book is funny. I laughed out loud many times. I also openly gaped many times. So I guess, the correct word is, this book is emotional.

Some people say the ending of the book was depressing, or unresolved. It is unresolved in the way The Catcher in the Rye's ending was unresolved (and I loved that conclusion). It is sad in the way A Tale of Two Cities is sad.

The ending of The Casual Vacancy is beautiful, cheery, encouraging, bittersweet, amazing, and sad. It is when the reader finally cheers on the characters, because each of the characters finally, finally, fills the 'vacancy' in their hearts. The characters grow. The war has ended. Everyone is getting back together. The ending is masterful. The ending is so, so sad. It is also so happy. I'm a sucker for a good, bittersweet conclusion.
I can still imagine the characters in my mind. Andrew, Gaia, Krystal, Sukhvinder, Fats, Robert. Ugh. The teens and children really make this book, and a few adults too. The best characters are the broken ones. No matter how much you might hate one of them, you... ugh. I miss them. The characters and the conclusion MAKE this book.

This book makes you think differently about people, and the world.
If you ask for my advice:

Read this book.

I know, I know, this might be my JK Rowling bias speaking, but please, try this book. But don't come into this book thinking it is Harry Potter. That will be the most fatal stroke to getting the most out of this book.
Maybe, maybe once everyone stops harping about the non-Harry-Potterness of this book, The Casual Vacancy will get the great recognition it deserves (and so unjustly is not given). 

But read it for yourself, and see how you feel. I seriously would love to hear your thoughts. I write this book recommendation a little frightened, because I know how much other people hate this book, and I don't want to recommend something people will hate. Yet, I feel this book means something to me, and I have to share it.

But I've given you the warnings: Give the characters a chance. (Please.) Make it through the beginning. Don't think it is Harry Potter.

In this book, you either hate the characters, or you love them, and that is a big part of this book's appeal; I fall in the latter category, but you might be in the former.

Don't rely on me. Read it for yourself and see what you think.
(By the way, The Casual Vacancy has overthrown 50 Shades of Grey for the spot of the #1 NY Times Bestseller. All is well.)

Updated Review

Now, let me preface this by saying that yes, I am a huge JK Rowling fan. But let me tell you this as well: I've had about eight months between now and the time when I first finished this book (in the beginning of October, 2012). That means eight months for me to forget about the book, eight months for my initial "Oh gosh it's JK Rowling!" excitement to wear off. And eight months for my to really collect my thoughts and ideas about this book.

And in those eight months I've grown to love it even more. Here's why.

This book made me a HUGE JK Rowling fan; before, I just loved Harry Potter and JKR's personality. But this book....Holy crap. JKR has SO MUCH potential as an adult writer. I am thirsting for another dose of her adult literature, a place where she explores more real-world and grimy subjects. I want more of her realistic fiction! (Although, as you can tell by this blog's header, I love her fantasy as well :D)

The Prose

I mentioned in the black above that the first 200 pages of this book were boring. I've now started a reread of this book and I ran through the first 180ish pages in three days. Maybe it's because I've finished the book already and am now enjoying to see the characters interact; I know how they interact, and at first, it might seem that it's random. It's not. (But still, at first read, those 200 pages were boring.)

But the thing that made me love these 200 pages was the writing. HOLY GOSH THE WRITING.

I can squeal about the writing. The diction, the syntax, the freshness of the words and fluidity of the prose; it all excites me so much. JKR labored over the writing of this novel, I can tell. At times I got almost frustrated by her good writing because I kept pausing to revel in the twists of phrase; it took me out of the story! She is, without a doubt, one of the strongest writers I've ever read (I didn't think she was a strong prose-writer when I first read Harry Potter). I can underline things on every page, probably.

The Characters

I also mentioned in the black above about how I loved all the characters. Maybe that was a bit too extreme. I don't think JKR wrote with the intention to make us love the characters like she did in Harry Potter. As readers, we are just observers of these characters; we are above them and separate, but still, somehow, tied to them. It doesn't matter if we hate or love them -- the book doesn't care about that. This is an impassioned 'character study', as one review on Amazon said, into the lives of over a dozen characters.

And one of the greatest things is that through her writing, JKR holds our hand and guides us through the emotions each character feels, so their actions (however horrid they technically might be) seem logical, almost instinctive. Almost as if you would do the same thing -- until you step back and realize, wait, no you wouldn't. JKR makes us identify and agree with one character, and then identify and agree with another character who is in direct opposition to the first character. It is frustrating, it is heartbreaking, it is infuriating, to be the head cheerleader for both sides of a fierce and heated relationship.

I think a lot rests on whether you hate or enjoy these characters; if you hate all of them, chances are you won't enjoy this book at all. This book is a dive into the minds of the characters and how their thoughts lead to their actions; it is almost laughable to read it for its plot.

Characterization, as seen in Harry Potter, is one of her strongest abilities as an author.

The Themes

This book is ambitious, so, so ambitious. It rips apart the lives of dozens of characters and by the end (at least, I feel it does) shows how all of them start to pick themselves up and fix themselves. Grow.

And yet the biggest theme lies in the characterization of all these amazing people: We are able to relate to every person if only we are willing to step into their shoes and realize that they, too, are human, just like us. Too often people forget that there are other humans, and other people with different lives and different economic and social statures. These themes become slightly invisible due to her reserved prose; a reader has to find these themes, because JKR doesn't really slam them over your head.

Failure to realize the crucial fact (that all people are human) leads to actions that hurt other people, that destroy lives: JK Rowling said in an interview that the original name of this book was to be "Responsibility." How much responsibility does one have towards society, towards others, towards oneself? Just how much can one person's action cause pain to others? 

And, an overarching theme: even if logically, some things are meant to be, how about emotionally? Shouldn't a person care for another, no matter how desperate and broken that person is? How can a person, with all of his/her nuances and emotions, function in a rigid and systematic (even 'from the outside looking in' type) society? (I'm thinking about Krystal here.) How about the underrepresented and ignored masses of society?

The biggest, 'straightforward' goal of this book, I am pretty sure, is to promote more funding for the welfare state in Britain. But this book is not a 'socialist manifesto' as one reviewer said; more like a 'humanitarian manifesto'.

This book reminds us to keep that all in mind. This book is great.

I seriously feel that this book is JK Rowling's greatest single literary achievement. I love Harry Potter as a series; I love, love this book as a book. I almost--almost, maybe, kind of, I don't know!--like this book better than Harry Potter--WAIT, I SAID MAYBE, I'M NOT SURE! PROBABLY NOT! 

Because Harry Potter was life-changing, and this wasn't, but still! I feel like I've been on a journey with these characters, from the beginning to the end, and it was sad to flip the final page :(

But please, listen: This is just me. I love literary and contemporary fiction. You might not like it. It's all a matter of taste. Chances are, if you are looking for something like Harry Potter, you won't like it. You'll hate it. This is not Harry Potter AT ALL. This is swearing and sex and drugs and cutting and more, galore!

But if you like books about characters, if you like books that put you in the minds of real people, if you are not afraid of seriously disturbing subjects in fiction, if you like literary fiction, if you love good writing, if you enjoy the grayness in life and don't believe black-and-white people or decisions exist, this book is for you. You will love this book.

But please, keep in mind: This is not Harry Potter. This is a grand work of contemporary fiction, and I really, really hope people start to realize that this book is separate from Harry Potter. I truly hope this book becomes well-known before I die; I'll be sad knowing that this book was deemed a failure and will never be truly realized for what it is.

But you might not like it! You, if statistics rein king, will probably hate it, due to all the negative feedback this book has gotten. This is just my opinion, and my thoughts. I want to spread the love for this book, get people to maybe give it a chance, but please, realize, this is just one person's opinion. Only one person. You might very well hate this book.

Weird thing: I'm in love with the binding of this book. It feels and reads like a book should. I don't know. It's weird. But I love it!

Buy the book here or wait until it comes out in paperback on July 23 (with a new cover, too. Two new ones, in fact!)!

Hope you liked my review, and don't forget to follow my blog!

Have any of you already read this book? If so, what did you think of it? If not, are you planning to? 


  1. (2nd try, comment disappeared *sigh*)

    I admire JKR for writing something completely different from HP - that takes guts! The reactions from some people are crazy - she warned everyone this one would be very different from HP, but they're still upset because it's different *sigh*. I think now that she has this one out of the way, the reactions will be less emotional and more realistic - and she can write what SHE wants/needs to write.

    1. YES! Oh gosh yes, you've said it perfectly :) I can't wait for whatever is next.

  2. Shooting up scene at the end?? You just said this had no spoilers!

    1. It's not a spoiler! The character shoots up allll the time, from the beginning, so it's not a surprise at all. It's just a reference to what scene I mentioned.

  3. I'm 40 pages in and this hasn't happened. From what you said I've been able to predict the ending!! Annoyed.

  4. Predict the ending? When did I say that. I just meant that... Wait, by shooting up, I mean drugs. Once you get introduced to one character (should be soon) you'll see what I mean. It's not a spoiler; it's a given, just like "Barry Fairweather died" (given in synopsis) is a given. Sorry for any misunderstanding!

    1. Ooh, I don't know SC - I think that did kinda qualify as a spoiler, in a way. You didn't give away anything major, I know, but as someone who's a stickler for not wanting to know ANYthing about stories until I read them, that is a spoiler of sorts. Might want to add a warning label to that line... :)

    2. Oh, shoot, sorry! I'm going to do it right now :)

  5. I'll definitely give it a read. And I love your honesty, SC. Great review! I think it's GREAT authors can dip into different types of stories. I'm really intrigued! :D

  6. Ooh, I didn't know VACANCY had overthrown 50 SHADES. That makes me really, really happy.

    So, please don't throw rotten tomatoes at me, but I really didn't like this book (I read it, though!). I was NOT expecting Harry Potter, so for me, that's not what it was. I just didn't feel like the characters grew at all - not most of them, anyway. But I kind of think that was the point.

    I just-- I really liked the writing. But I didn't like the story. HOWEVER, I will definitely be reading everything JKR puts out into the world, so...onward!

    1. Oh, no, DEFINITELY, I will not throw tomotoes at you! Thank you so so so much for sharing your opinion, though, because I've been dying to know what other people (people I actually know) thought of thisbook, and you are the first one I know to share your opinion with me :) Thank you so much!

  7. Thanks. Now I know that just because I've been bored so far while reading the beginning, that I won't be bored reading the entire book.

  8. I'll consider reading it for you, and because it's not HP. lol SO tired of hearing about that series. No offense.

  9. I have only read one Harry Potter book and only seen about 3 movies. I've been wanting to read this, just waiting for it to come out in paperback..... Love your blog and am trying to finish my WIP for the Query Kombat contest. So much to do, so little time!
    A2Z Mommy And What’s In between

  10. Love JK Rowling or hate her, nobody can deny that she can write - well.

    I can't say that, The Casual Vacancy, was one of my favourite books, however, I grew to like the story and the characters, albeit I was 'shocked' by some of the language!

    But hey, like you said, it's not Harry Potter. By any stretch of the imagination!

  11. I didn't know the book was getting a lot of hate. I haven't had the desire to read it. And after your review, I know I won't read it. I would be too jealous of her writing if I did. :D

  12. I LOVED your additional review, SC. You're a great reviewer and it's clear you know your stuff. Now I'm more intrigued than ever to read this because of your thoughts. JK is brilliant. She just is. Loved this.