This post first appeared in The News-Gazette Sunday paper. It’s written in newspaper style. Thanks!
Margo Dill: Rowling’s new novel a little too long for my liking
Sun, 11/18/2012 – 3:00pm | Margo L. Dill
The highly anticipated post-Harry Potter novel, “The Casual Vacancy” by J.K. Rowling, has been out for almost two months and receiving lukewarm reviews at best. Such a huge amount of success as Rowling had with Potter is difficult to top, and many people will look for reasons to hate her latest book before even reading it.
It’s hard to separate the author from her novel and critique it on its own merit, even though “The Casual Vacancy” is not for children and not fantasy.
So, what’s my opinion? I didn’t love it or hate it. The first half of the book was extremely slow, and I had a hard time getting into the characters, the setting and the plot. Thoughts that kept going through my mind were: Who cares about these ridiculous people? I can’t believe this is all over a seat on the council. And I really hate this character or that one.
Admittedly, the two reasons I kept reading was I’m a huge Rowling fan — not just her work as an author but her entire Cinderella story — and I was reviewing the book for this column, so I finished it.
However … by page 300 of the 500-plus-page book, I could hardly put it down. And I started to like some of the characters better, too — even the villains (a talent Rowling has: Readers don’t like Voldemort necessarily, but they could understand how he got to be the way he was.)
So, what’s “The Casual Vacancy” about? Councilman Barry Fairbrother, who lives in the small English town of Pagford, dies unexpectedly in his early 40s. At the time of his death, the council members are in extreme disagreement over boundary issues, and it causes quite a rift between them all.
Barry’s open seat leaves a mad scramble for each side to find a replacement who will agree with a side, and several townspeople throw their names on the ballot to fill the empty seat.
But this isn’t really what the novel is about. Rowling takes a look at the people Barry affected when he was alive, from his wife to his best friend, who is in the middle of a rocky relationship, from a teenage girl with a drug-addicted mother to a fellow councilwoman, a doctor, who is accused of being in love with Barry, and all the people on the council opposing or agreeing with him.
One complaint many readers have had about this novel are all the characters, but the way Rowling connects them and shows how in a small town, everyone’s actions really do affect each other is believable and keeps the plot moving along — especially in the beginning.
She’s a clever writer and superb at plotting, and this talent shows in “The Casual Vacancy.”
A couple characters — Fats Wall, the son of a man running for the empty seat, and Simon Price, who wants to be elected — are repulsive human beings. Fats, a bully and disrespectful punk, eventually sort of redeems himself, and readers could perhaps excuse some of his behavior because he’s a teen. But Simon is an abusive, dishonest criminal who beats his wife and sons, and some of it is very difficult to read.
On Rowling’s website (http://www.jkrowling.com), this novel is described this way: “Blackly comic, thought-provoking and constantly surprising, ‘The Casual Vacancy’ is J.K. Rowling’s first novel for adults.”
Truthfully, most characters and situations weren’t funny — even “blackly.” They were sad but honest.
And sometimes it felt as if Rowling was trying too hard to make sure people knew she could write for adults: There’s a lot of sex, violence and profanity.
Would I recommend it? To some people, I would. Rowling has a gift of creating a fictional story world for readers and bringing it to life. She leaves readers thinking about characters long after shutting the pages of a book.
As much as you might wish the following wasn’t true, the characters in her latest novel are based on people in real life — probably you know someone just like them in your life.
What would have helped her first adult novel is an editor with a red pen who cut out 200 pages.
Margo L. Dill is the author of “Finding My Place: One Girl’s Strength at Vicksburg,” a middle-grade historical fiction novel. She often reviews books as a columnist for “WOW! Women On Writing” e-zine and her blog, “Margo Dill’s Read These Books and Use Them” (http://margodill.com/blog/). She lives in St. Louis with her family.