The Thief of Joy: A Review of The Casual Vacancy

I am a pessimist, and in most circumstances this dreary outlook on life keeps me happy. Since I expect the worst, I’m never let down. But occasionally, I set my pessimism aside, and I let myself almost get excited about an upcoming event. When I heard that J. K. Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter series, was writing a book for adults, I discovered a bit of optimism sneaking into my expectation.

Of course, I reminded myself to be cautious. “Don’t get your hopes up,” I told myself. I kept saying, “Remember how tedious and bloated the fifth Harry Potter book was?” To which the creeping optimism would answer, “Yes, but wasn’t the sixth one so good?” and “Won’t it be fun to see where she goes next?” Against my better judgment, I began to get excited imagining the books I would write, if I were J. K. Rowling.

When the title and synopsis of the new book were released, optimism finally managed to banish my blessed pessimism. The Casual Vacancy! What a delightful title! What could it mean? It’s about an idyllic English town called Pagford? I felt like old Mr. Emerson did at the prospect of living in Summer Street. “Pagford! I’ve dreamed of Pagford!” The book’s about a fight over an empty seat on the parish council? It sounded wonderful. I began imagining that Rowling had transformed herself into a modern-day Trollope, and that The Casual Vacancy would be her Barchester Towers. With my imagination running wild, I convinced myself that this book would probably be one of my favorites. Admittedly, when I saw that the page count exceeded 500, I had a premonition of book five of Harry Potter, but then I banished that dark thought by focusing on the cover. I decided that the ballot “X” on the cover was an allusion to the cross of Christ and referenced some kind of redemptive work found in the book.

And then I started reading the book.

I realized quickly that optimism had set me up for massive disappointment. This book was not the one that I had imagined it would be. I persevered to the 250-page mark. I realized that this book was not especially good, but maybe the plot threads would come together. I finished the book. I realized that it wasn’t good at all.

I had expected that Rowling would write a book with a bit of wit and winsomeness. My optimism convinced me that there would be a bit of humor. Obviously these magical characteristics only belong in the young adult genre. Rowling has written us an “adult” book, which I suppose is coded language for “boring.” I did, however, find it ironic that an “adult” book could be so juvenile.

The characters are clichéd, and don’t get me started on how badly Rowling writes the teenaged male (again see the wretched fifth book of Harry Potter).  The pages of The Casual Vacancy are so laced with profanity that it’s almost laughable. Rowling comes across like a middle school child who has just discovered that he can “cuss” with friends and get away with it. He uses his newfound vocabulary to the point of absurdity. The ubiquitous sex and vulgarity make the book awkward and clumsy.

The biggest problem with the book, however, is its cast of characters. I admit that a few characters are interesting, but as I said most of citizens of Pagford are clichés. None of the characters, however, are likeable. From page 1 to page 503, I genuinely didn’t care about one person in the book. The only person that I thought might potentially be likeable was the councilman whom Rowling killed off on the second page. At times I realized that Rowling wanted me to view certain characters sympathetically, but she never managed to convince me.

The small town of Pagford is broken and dysfunctional, and all the people who live there are despicable or pathetic. I assume that Rowling wanted to present “real” people who are multifaceted, but all the facets of the Pagfordians are ugly, which makes them a bit unrealistic. There is no hero (except for maybe the dead guy). How can a reader care what happens next, if the reader doesn’t care about any of the characters?

Though I believe the lack of a sympathetic character to be the unforgiveable sin in a novel, Rowling compounds her transgressions by offering a fairly boring plot. Not only did I not care about the characters in the book, but also their deeds were tedious and unrelated. The book claims to be about the election to fill the dead councilman’s seat, and a number of pages deal with that theme. But really, the whole election could have been left out of the book and not much would have changed. The political maneuverings that attended the election spark a few interesting events, but alas, these events go nowhere.

At one point as I read, I thought, “Ah ha, now we’re getting somewhere” (optimism rears its ugly head), and then a hundred pages later, I thought, “Hmmm, this might lead somewhere.” But I was wrong. Every action seemed to fizzle into inconsequential pettiness. The climax of the book is almost totally unrelated to the 450 pages that came before. The characters don’t develop. The plot doesn’t develop. By the book’s conclusion, it’s merely a string of mostly unrelated, meaningless actions performed by pathetic characters. Instead of feeling sorry for the book’s characters, reading this “adult” book left me feeling sorry for Rowling. I felt like patting her on the head and saying, “Well, you tried. That’s all we can ask.”

All these wasted pages left me with one simple question: “What was Rowling’s editor at Little Brown thinking?” And then I realized. The editor at Little Brown must have known that this was a train wreck of a book. Any editor worth his or her salt could see that this book was at least 200 pages too long. Any editor could see the problems with character and plot. But it didn’t matter because this was J. K. Rowling. The Casual Vacancy would sell amazingly well no matter how bad it was. No editor would dare suggest improvements to the book, because no editor would risk her taking the project somewhere else.

Though the book was awful, this experience has been good for me. It’s reminded me of the importance of lowering my expectations for my fellow man. I’m fairly optimistic that I’ll be more careful in the future.

Did you read The Casual Vacancy? What did you think? Chime in with your thoughts, but please don’t leave any spoilers in the comments, just in case someone is foolish enough to want to read it.

6 responses to “The Thief of Joy: A Review of The Casual Vacancy”

  1. Colin,

    Don’t you think all this pettiness and ugliness is JKR’s point? And don’t you think she’s trying to get people to see how petty, selfish, and ugly we tend to be?

    And isn’t there a repentance at the end, and isn’t there an implicit appeal to live for something more, and don’t you think people will read the book and maybe want to help others, want to be like Fairbrother, want to intervene in the lives of at-risk kids?

    Didn’t she help you see the point of view taken by liberals who want more government programming, even as she showed that the people engaged in those programs are not really better than those they’re trying to help? And didn’t she show the heartlessness of the conservatives, even as what’s so good about Fairbrother is not the fact that he supports liberal programs but that he actually cares about people and loves them and engages in their lives?

    Don’t you think the depiction of all this is a bit of an acheivement?


    • Jim, I think you’re right that Rowling wished to communicate those ideas, but I don’t think she quite managed it. I actually don’t see much repentance in the book’s conclusion (not enough to get excited about anyway). No, the book doesn’t make me want to help others and at-risk kids. Rowling robs her characters of the image of God so completely that they are barely human. I find that the book makes me feel the exact opposite of how she probably intended. (Now, don’t get me wrong, I’d like to help others, but I’m saying that this book just didn’t further that desire in the least.) Thanks for the comment.

  2. Just far to many character being discribed in who they are and what they do. My heed was buzzing half way through the book.

  3. I feel exactly this way about Jonathan Franzen’s books, and he is a darling of the critics. I wasn’t really tempted to read this Rowling offering, and now I certainly will not. Thanks for saving me 500 pages.

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