Thursday, February 13, 2014

The Casual Vacancy (a book review post)

It took a long time, but I finally finished The Casual Vacancy by J. K. Rowling.
My first impression of the book remains my impression of the book now that I've finished it, that Rowling was trying too hard to be "adult." It's like the stereotypical starlet who goes out of her way to do as many nude and/or sex scenes in her movies as soon as she turns 18. Or, you know, like Lindsay Lohan or Britney Spears. Or, prior to them, Drew Barrymore (if any of you remember when she went through that stage and posed in Playboy and all of that). It's not that there is sex in the book, it's that any time there was anything sexual, she conveyed it in the most crude and vulgar way possible. Like the detailed description of a young girl's genital area in a quasi-sexual way. It just seemed to me like a cry of, "Look! I can write adult stuff! I can!"

Aside from that issue, though, it's quite an interesting read. At least it is for a while. Well, it's interesting like a traffic accident is interesting. I mean, none of the characters are what you would call "good." So here is the spoiler warning before I go on.

The most interesting thing about the book is that the only "good" character, the protagonist, dies. No, not somewhere along the way; he dies right at the beginning. That's the inciting incident. And, no, he doesn't come back to life nor is he a ghost or anything like that. He's just dead. The rest of the book is about this election because of his vacated council seat and, along the way, we find out how he influenced his community. We find out just how good he was, which shows us all the failings of the people around him as they are set up against the person he was. I suppose the effect is like taking over a new job and having to listen to everyone go on and on about how great the previous person was. You form a picture of that person (distorted, sure) without ever meeting him.

On the other side of that, none of the other characters are really likable, so there's no driving force to keep reading. You're just not rooting for anyone. So, although the book is really well written and interesting in the way it's put together, it's really hard to feel any empathy for any of the characters. As soon as you start to think, "well, this one's okay," that one will do something horrible to someone and it becomes, "well, never mind, then." I suppose the closest we get to a character we want to see make it is Krystal Weedon, but that's only because Fairbrother (the dead guy) wanted to see her make it. You do feel sorry for her from time to time, but she's also not a very nice person, with reason, so it's difficult to retain that bond with her.

There are two main failings of the book. The first is perspective. It's third person omniscient, but it's kind of all over the place. There are a lot of characters, so there is a lot of shifting perspectives, which isn't really the problem. The problem is that Rowling has no pattern she follows for this. Sometimes, she takes the characters by section by section so that there is a clear change in character perspective. However, sometimes, it's like being at a party with a video camera and the perspective changes as you walk around and film different people. One paragraph you're with one person and the next, because someone more interesting walked past, you're following someone new around. If Rowling had used just one of those formats, it would have been okay, but switching back and forth made it a bit muddled. Still, if this had been the only issue, it would have been fine.

The other issue is the one that makes the book not really work for me in the end. Even though Fairbrother is dead, he serves as the main character for more than 75% of the book. Near the end, though, it's like Rowling decided that she just needed to end the story (which she did), and events quit revolving or being related to the death of Fairbrother. (And double spoiler alert!) It is not, however, because events gradually diverge; that could have worked. Instead, she just starts killing people. Everyone comes into a personal crisis all on the same day, and she resolves the crisis of the book not by resolving the crisis of the book but by delivering arbitrary death upon characters. It was just... unsatisfying. It wasn't even death in a Shakespearean sense where everyone kills each other. There just needed to be resolution, and that's how she did it. I suppose there's not a better way to bring a character's story to an end. Unless you start with that character's death, I guess.

So... great writing on the micro-level. The characters were well-developed and fascinating, just not likable. But the perspective changes and failure at the end made the book just not work for me overall. Few of the characters really learn anything or have any character growth; it just ends. I suppose that's because the death of the one character we're supposed to want to make it, the thing that would have made Fairbrother's life mean something, brought Fairbrother's story to a close. But nothing felt finished even though there was nothing more to say.

I suppose that's real life, but, although I want realism, I don't read a story for real life. I want a story arc, not just a bunch of stuff that happened to some people.


  1. I had a very similar reaction to this novel. It took me forever to read it, too, because I wasn't really rooting for anyone.

  2. Sounds like it just wanders along aimlessly. Yes, that is real life, but most of us read to escape real life.
    Not a fan of third person omniscient, either.
    This was never a book I wanted to read anyway.

  3. I received this as a Christmas gift but just cracked into it this week, as I had too many things lined up ahead of it. Because of that, I didn't read beyond your first paragraph.

    My own thoughts so far are that this is a tough book for me to get into. It's taken a week to get to page 50, though in fairness, I've been busy this week. Still, it's not holding my attention very well so far. What it's lacking right now is the sheer charm that Harry Potter had, though granted it's not supposed to be a charming book.

    The thing is, I really want to like it. I want it to be good. I want her to be successful in a non-Potter way. Hopefully, I'll be able to get into it more as we go.

  4. Unlikable characters are not usually a problem for me, but then I watched like six episodes of "House of Cards" last night to prep for the new season on Netflix. And then this morning I started reading "Hollywood" by Charles Bukowski, who does not write likable characters either.

  5. One of my partners was reading this book and she said one day "I've been reading that JK Rowling book" in a tone of voice that I would use for "I've been eating this beet sandwich" (which FYI I just found is a thing people sometimes eat, gross), so your review actually UPPED my estimation of the book.

    Is it possible that Rowling was using all the deaths at the end to bookend the death of the main character at the start? I'm REALLY bad at symbolism and other literary devices, as I almost never (consciously) use them (seriously, I don't: most of my attempts at using a literary device are hamhanded at best), but maybe that was her point?

    I like that she tried something different, though. She didn't need to write, period; she's a gazillionaire, and could've spent the rest of her life whipping out terrible Harry Potter crap just to milk that market to death, but instead she branched out. It's like your favorite band, U2: they could've just Joshua Treed themselves for 20 years but they tried some different stuff, too. Hard to fault that, even if it didn't work out.

    Plus, the fact that she had enough skill to keep you reading says a lot about her as a writer.

  6. I heard her Detective novel is pretty good. This sounded like a mess from the blurb alone. I am confident that she can write well, and I guess she's earned the right to do whatever she wants. But I'd like to see her do another multi volume fantasy epic.

  7. Money is all that matters. She's rolling in it. You are not.

  8. Well, I'll put that one on the "To Miss" list. Maybe she needs more critique partners.

  9. M.J.: I'm not even sure if there was someone we were supposed to be rooting for. Other than the dead guy... who was dead.

    Alex: It's not quite aimless; it's just... scattered.

    JeffO: The writing is good. In fact, the -writing- is probably better than in Harry Potter. The story, though... well, it lacks any charm.

    Pat: So unlikable characters are a problem now? Or you're having unlikable character overload?

    Briane: It didn't look or feel like symbolism to me other than that the death of one of the characters does bring to a close (and to nothing) the life of the guy that died at the beginning.

    I do like that she went and did something that was not Harry, and I hope she doesn't go back to Harry as it seems more and more that she will.

    Rusty: I want to read that one, but I haven't been able to work it into my list, yet.

    Michael: I'm not sure what you're saying. It sounds like you're saying that because she has money it doesn't matter the quality of the book, to which I would have to disagree.

    Jeanne: Yeah, I'm not thinking that's it. I have a philosophical disagreement with CPs.

  10. I had no plans to read this book and now you've given me a good reason not to. I guess Rowling is going to have to step up her game if she's going to remain successful as an adult author.

    An A to Z Co-Host
    Tossing It Out

  11. I'm just like Lee, no intention of reading it and now will certainly not bother.

  12. Lee: That depends on what you mean, I suppose. I can't stress enough that the writing in this was excellent. The actual writing. From that standpoint, her game is fine. More than fine.

    Jo: I don't think it's the kind of thing you'd like.

  13. I put this book down over a year ago for all the reasons you mention. I guess more than anything my reading is character driven, and if I don't have someone to root for, why bother?

  14. I haven't read it, but probably will someday. Got the spoiler, but that's okay. You DID warn me. :D

    I'll probably have forgotten by the time I get around to the read anyway.

    Maybe JK will learn to be a bit more subtle in her future adult works!

  15. In some ways the end of this book sounds a bit like the movie IDENTITY with John Cusack and Ray Liotta--in short it's about people at a hotel, trapped, and suddenly they start dropping like flies. It was a great thriller, but I felt cold at the conclusion...

    It's probably why I shy away from mystery suspense books. I want the warm fuzzies when I read. Not a nightmare-inducing hellscape sure to aggravate my insomnia...

    Thanks for sharing!

  16. "Well, it's interesting like a traffic accident is interesting."

    This made me laugh! And, it's kind of sad. I don't think any author wants their book to look like a traffic accident...unfortunately, you probably hit the nail on the head here.

    I've heard a lot about this book, and your take is pretty similar to other critiques out there. It's too bad Rowling couldn't pull the story together and make something halfway satisfying with it.

    Sorry, but killing off your characters in the end just to finally wrap the story up doesn't work out with any type of book.

  17. Your observation that it's "great writing at the micro-level" is probably the nicest thing I've heard about this book. I don't mind a lack of likable characters if there's some point to them being that way, but it doesn't sound like there is here.

  18. Katie: Yeah, it can be tough to keep going when you don't feel attached to any of the characters.
    You should try Mary Doria Russell.

    Trisha: I think the transition can be difficult to manage when everyone has labeled you and stuck you in a box. I need to check out her detective novel.

    Veronica: I don't think I've seen that one. Or maybe I have? Ah, bah... now, I'm going to have to go check on netflix...

    Mary Mary: Well, unless you're Shakespeare. He managed to pull off the epic death endings, but I can't think of anyone else since then.

    Stephanie: The point, I think, was just to show "real" people. That all people are these jealous, petty things. But I don't know a lot of people like the characters in this book. Some, sure, but not on the level she uses them in Vacancy, which seems to say "this is everyone."

  19. She seems starved for attention. The whole "I really wanted Harry to be with Hermione" thing - why bother throwing that at us at this point except that you just can't stand the idea that we're not talking about you anymore? Sorry to hear the book was disappointing.

  20. TAS: Yeah, it's hard to know. I mean, she went from, "I'm finished with Harry Potter," to, "Well, I might be willing to consider writing more Harry Potter some time in the future," to, "I think I have more Harry Potter stories to tell."

  21. Sounds like JK needs better beta readers for her grown up stories: maybe I won't worry about reading this but I would have a peek at other stuff.
    She must get pressured to do more Harry Potter stories, and I don't envy her that level of scrutiny. Do admire the success and the daring to be different.

  22. I think your review was quite kind. I had to give up on this book for many of the reasons you have cited and more.

  23. Lisa: It seems like she's moving more and more back to Harry, which I find kind of sad.

    Sally: It's interesting you would say that, about it being kind, because it's in the same vein as my other negative reviews, which are usually viewed as me being mean.