I have a unique perspective of J.K. Rowling and The Casual Vacancy: I am one of the few who knows practically nothing of Harry Potter. And yet I was excited when I heard the release was coming soon—not because I was enamored with Rowling or because I thought I might discover a great new talent, but because I would be able to give a startling, honest review of Rowling’s foray into the world of adult literature. I was going to tear Rowling limb from literary limb and prove once and for all that the masses had been bamboozled by a little magic, that underneath the fantasy was nothing more than a parade of poorly organized, meaningless words. I had no reason to hate Harry Potter other than the fact that it was immensely popular; therefore it must suck (see also Twilight, Fifty Shades of Grey, etc.)
Admittedly, I even started writing my review months before the book was published. It contained witty remarks and flashy pictures that mocked the craze of Harry Potter. It was guaranteed to catch the attention of many and I would become famous overnight for my single-handed dismantling of a shoddy franchise. I considered including parts of that initial review in this one—the parts that just showcased my ignorance of Potter—but none of that seems fitting for this book. It would be disrespectful and irrelevant in the light of one of the greatest works of contemporary fiction. (Yes, you read that right, and no, there is absolutely no sarcasm implied.)
The Casual Vacancy is the best book I have read in years. It is orchestrated with such a precision that it would be ignorant to write Rowling off as anything but talented. The story moves with a pace that made my heart skip. The characters are unique and so incredibly realistic. The novel is heartbreaking and entertaining and, dare I say it, perfect.
That’s not to say it was the easiest read. The beginning starts off rather slowly, and without knowing where Rowling is ultimately going it seems as though she is trying to tackle something much larger than she can handle. Also, the characters—they’re great but there are so many of them that it is incredibly difficult to keep track of them all, especially since they are connected with one another and these connections are vital to the story. Eventually I was able to keep the characters straight, but even at the end I had to pause and think about it; it certainly wouldn’t hurt to keep notes.
Clearly this book hasn’t hit its target audience yet. The reviews have largely been negative. The rating on Goodreads drops every day. Though I haven’t read Harry Potter, I know enough to declare that this is not, as some seem to have hoped, Harry Potter for adults. It is dark and bitter. It is designed to make you disgusted with humanity. Most significantly, it is real. The Casual Vacancy portrays the reality that many readers wish to escape from. I’m sure not everyone will agree with me, but this novel reminded me considerably of Jonathan Franzen. There is that same multi-layered dissection of daily human condition that is repulsive and largely ungratifying. That being said, I think Rowling is a much more universal writer than Franzen. She is able to tackle that same grit with an added emotional layer that I believe Franzen lacks.
A year ago I wouldn’t have imagined it possible that I would be comparing J.K. Rowling with Jonathan Franzen. I wouldn’t have believed that I would ever read one of her books, or that I would LOVE IT and declare it one of the best books I have ever read. But it’s true. Unabashedly I proclaim that I am in love with J.K. Rowling. And I openly apologize for having ever spoken poorly of her, especially having not given her a try.
So does this mean I will read the Harry Potter series now? I’ve made no definite decision, but I might. (Yeah, I know, you told me so.) But part of me thinks that in the time it would take me to read the whole Potter series, I could read The Casual Vacancy several more times and dissect its many layers and learn something profound. Yes, I was a fool to dismiss Rowling, but I have opened my mind and am prepared to learn from a master.