I’m a little late on this one. I had wanted to buy a copy of this when it originally came out, but when I went to the bookstore it was THIRTY BUCKS and I was like, oh man, I’ll wait. Then I sort of forgot about it, because there’s so many other books to read! The announcement that Rowling had written another book under a pseudonym reminded me that I really needed to get around to reading The Casual Vacancy, as it has been out for almost a year. I still had to put it on hold and wait for it at my local library, and even then I could only take it out as an express loan, so I guess there are a lot of people still reading this one.
Let’s just say…I’m not bothered that it took me so long to read it. This was very much an “okay” read for me. In a lot of ways it’s hard for me to review, because it’s so difficult for me to remove my actual feelings about the novel from my warm, nostalgic feelings towards J.K. Rowling as a writer. There is danger of me being too harsh, because nothing really can live up to the magic of Harry Potter, especially a novel as decidedly gritty as this one; then there is the danger that I’m being too nice, that if this was any other writer, I would probably be a little less forgiving, or more likely I wouldn’t have read a book like this in the first place. Let’s just acknowledge that those biases are there and move on.
I found The Casual Vacancy, like Harry Potter, to be very readable and gripping. It’s 500 pages but it wasn’t a chore to read it in the 10 days allotted to me by the library. I was giddy at first because I really was enjoying it a lot for the first hundred pages or so. I liked the grittiness, the adult language. Some may be bothered by it, but because I am used to adult themes in fiction, I liked it. Sometimes it may have seemed a little bit forced, but I don’t feel that way just because it’s J.K. Rowling. I find that a lot of “edgy” fiction dealing with sex and drugs, etc, often feels a little bit try-hard to me. It’s hard to find a natural balance, to write a story with those elements and come off sincere, not like you’re trying to shock or exploit. It wasn’t terrible in The Casual Vacancy, but sometimes its there.
I was poised to give this one four out of five stars, because I really did enjoy reading it, but there are two major elements that fell short for me.
1) The characters — there were too many! I don’t mind unlikable characters, or even morally questionable ones. My problem is that I didn’t know who I was supposed to root for in this large ensemble. I got an idea by the end, but by then I was already frustrated. This is a very large cast of characters, as its a story about a whole town, but I really wished that there was more secure footing for the reader, and more chances to connect with the characters. Instead I just felt like a voyeur of them all which I think was purposeful, but I didn’t always enjoy that experience. The hero of the story seems to be the man who dies at the very beginning, which is an interesting element, but also a frustrating one.
2) The ending felt wrong to me on some levels. I won’t spoil it, but it’s not an ending that leaves things open ended so much as it left a bad taste in my mouth. I’m not one to gripe about endings usually, but the last hundred pages of this rubbed me the wrong way–at the same time, I can’t think of another way this could have ended.
It seems to me The Casual Vacancy, while an entertaining read, suffers from being a little bit jumbled. I’m excited to read The Cuckoo’s Calling and whatever else J.K. Rowling has up her sleeve, though.
Final verdict: 3/5 stars
Goodreads challenge: 43/70
Currently Reading: The Enchantress Returns by Chris Colfer