The Casual Vacancy by JK Rowling was…well, not exactly what I thought it would be. The writing was just fine and the characterization was incredibly solid, but the plot was not one that I wanted to read. I forced myself to finish the book, which I am glad I did, because the last fifty pages wrapped up (nearly) every storyline all nice and neat. But, I am getting ahead of myself.
The story begins with the death of a parish councilman Barry Fairbrother. His death by aneurism was a shock to everyone and a pleasure to some. His foes on the parish council did not dislike him as a man, but disliked his “pet project” the Fields, which was the area outside of the town (but within town limits) that was home to a methadone clinic and the poorest of poor families who, according to its opponents, were all drug addicts with good-for-nothing children. Barry’s mission as councilman was to see the Fields improved upon, whereas his opponents wanted it razed and its residents relocated. And so The Casual Vacancy is about the people hoping to fill his vacant seat, their children, their neighbors, and everyone in between. No seriously…everyone
Rowling did an incredible job with the characters. You felt like you knew them, and when I wasn’t reading, I was thinking about them. But not necessarily in a good way. I was disturbed by their selfishness. And I mean real selfishness. (Come to think of it, I felt the same way about many of her characters in Harry Potter. Did she just have a bad experience with British teens, or are they all truly that self-centered?) The teens in the story, for example, all had problems with their parents – one was emotionally berated by her mother, one was physically abused by his father, one was uprooted by her mother, another was forced to care for her baby brother because her mother’s addiction was so consuming – but their behavior towards their parents, even the nice parents, was despicable. I recall not being so nice to my own mother sometimes, but I would never have sabotaged her. I fear that Rowling was adhering to the stereotype that teens were selfish and vindictive to the point of self destruction, as long as their enemy was ruined as well.
And the adults?! Oh wow was I embarrassed at their behavior. I mean I was cringing at the things that came out of their mouths, their actions, their thoughts. Has Rowling just had such negative interactions with her adult peers that she couldn’t create one likable character? Not one? Or was this just a case study of a town at its worst? I’ll hope for that, otherwise I’m not visiting suburban London. Like, ever.
The last fifty pages, as I mentioned earlier, were great. Great in that the story was wrapped up, but was very, very sad. A few characters learned their lessons, a few grew from their experience, and some were too stuck in their ways to even see how they were wrong to begin with. But we have all been each of those people, right? The last fifty pages moved so fast that I found myself excited to turn the page, which is something I don’t feel all that often. So, good job, Rowling!
I will recommend this book to people who enjoy reading about other’s lives. No, really. Anyone who enjoys soap operas, dramatic TV shows, or gossip will love this book. (I truly don’t mean this sarcastically.) There are a few people who I know would just love this book, simply because they love looking into lives that are not their own. This book is also a study in excellent characterization, so someone looking to improve their own writing skill would benefit from reading this novel.