The Casual Vacancy, by J.K. Rowling

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Four stars, read in November 2013.

I don’t know if it’s true, but I imagine the reaction to this book is what caused Rowling to adopt a pseudonym for The Cuckoo’s Calling. I’m irritated both that she had to do it, and that it was too late for The Casual Vacancy. This book deserved, and did not get, a fair chance.

I read so many reviews by people who claimed they weren’t comparing it to Harry Potter, but then did exactly that. The book has things in common with The Catcher in the RyeThe Interestings, everything by Jonathan Franzen, even Cold Sassy Tree—but it has nothing in common with Harry Potter. It’s not the same genre; it’s not the same style of writing; it’s not the same world.

Actually, I read a Goodreads review that seems to make the complete opposite point, and I think it’s valid—that “this book has many of the same elements, only without the safe haven of magic. Basically, this is a real world where a strange man showing up at your family’s doorstep at night is less likely to be a magical school groundskeeper but more likely your family’s drug dealer who, by the way, may not be adverse to beating and raping you for good measure. It’s the world left for Dudley Dursley and friends after Harry gets whisked away to magicland, and it ain’t pretty.” But really, that says more or less the same thing, because the magic is what makes Harry Potter Harry Potter. This book does not give us magic.

I ended up liking it very much. It’s hard to read books with unlikable characters, and there were very few characters I didn’t just hate most of the time, but it was easily worth all 500 pages (which I read in just a few days). I could understand or pity most of the characters even if I didn’t like them, and I really enjoy books driven more by character development and relationships than by plot devices. It has that feeling that occasionally gives me the sudden urge to read it again, whether I’ve seen it come through at the library or just thought of something that reminds me of it. I’m sure I’ll be picking it up again one day soon.

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7 thoughts on “The Casual Vacancy, by J.K. Rowling

  1. This has been on my TBR for a while, but I’ve been afraid to read it because I’m afraid I’ll unconsciously compare it to Harry Potter. I wouldn’t do it on purpose, and some of those people probably didn’t mean to either, but when the book is influential its hard not to.

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    1. I put it off for a year after it came out, for the same reason. I’ve been thinking about it, and I think the problem is that because of who she is, a lot of people read this book who wouldn’t normally have read this kind of book. The fact that Rowling wrote it is the reason I picked it up, but I also read Jonathan Franzen, Allegra Goodman, Meg Wolitzer, Lauren Groff—it’s conceivable that with another author’s name on the cover, I might have read it eventually anyway. So it wasn’t difficult for me to separate my Harry Potter feelings from my Casual Vacancy feelings. But if someone’s really a YA fantasy reader and her name is the actual only reason they would read this kind of contemporary adult fiction, yeah, I suppose it makes sense.

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      1. Agreed. I’m just glad she’s kept going through all of it and that she’s continued to do what she loves and that she’s trying new things and ignoring the haters.

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      2. Me too! Because really, she is so talented. I’m not a mystery fan, so it’s taking me a long time to get around to the Robert Galbraith books, but I do plan to read them. What I would really love is for her to come out with more books like this one—not necessarily genre, just excellent fiction.

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  2. I haven’t read Harry Potter, other than a couple of chapters from the first book, out loud to my nephews. It didn’t grab me. I love the Cormoran Strike books, though. She writes detective stories very well. I might give The Casual Vacancy a try.

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