Book Review: The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling

by Jenn (eating bender) on January 11, 2013

Thanks for all the kind words on my 2013 goals. So far, the book-related ones are off to a great start. I’ve already read two for the year because I just couldn’t put them down! I’ll be sharing their reviews soon, but first I wanted to write one for a book that has received some very mixed commentary since it came out last fall: The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling. As I mentioned in another review, despite what critics said about this book, I really enjoyed it.

Casual Vacancy

In Short

This book is not Harry Potter. It is certainly not a children’s book. There is no magic involved, no school of witchcraft and wizardry. It is a gritty, graphic and emotional roller coaster. The characters in the story, of which there are so many that at first it’s a bit hard to keep track, are full of problems, whether self-inflicted or caused by the bullying and torment of others. I know I’m likely not doing a great job of selling this book in your mind so far, but I think it’s important to go into reading The Casual Vacancy knowing that it’s not going to be a feel-good plot. It’s full of some of life’s toughest situations and at times, can leave you feeling just plain sad.

But I don’t know if there is anyone who does character development better than J.K. Rowling. For me, even though the characters were miserable for the majority of the book, their stories were so real and raw that it made me want to keep reading. J.K. Rowling truly captures humanity in a way that not everyone will be able to relate to, but that everyone can agree is authentic and original. Read this book if you are prepared for heavy subject matter, and keep reading even if the first few chapters are a bit confusing (as I said, there are a lot of players in this plot). I promise that even if you don’t necessarily find yourself feeling happy and settled after the last page, her writing and the harrowing truths of her story will give you a lot to think about.

The Details

The book takes place in a small English town called Pagford, whose inhabitants are reeling from the death of Barry Fairbrother on the opening pages. He leaves behind a grieving family but also, several grieving townspeople and, interestingly, several townspeople who are quite happy to see him go. That’s because Barry was an outspoken member of the Pagford town council, which is extremely divided, to say the least. And now his empty seat threatens an uprising as both sides fight for who will take his place. In the midst of all the fighting going on between the adults, there is also a whole lot of drama going on amongst their children. As the Amazon description puts it, Pagford is “a town at war. Rich at war with poor, teenagers at war with their parents, wives at war with their husbands, teachers at war with their pupils…” and the list goes on. The book deals with abuse – drug, physical and emotional – self-harm, depression, sex, death and more. It is not a light read! Ultimately, the aftermath of Barry’s death has its share of problems and solutions, though whether those solutions actually help anybody is still up for debate when the novel ends.

As I mentioned earlier, one of my favorite parts about reading this book was the attention to detail J.K. Rowling uses when developing her characters. Although there are many names to remember at the start of the book, she builds out their personal stories so quickly and completely that by halfway through you feel as though you’ve known the characters forever. J.K. Rowling also uses a dark humor throughout the book that will make you smile even though the subject matter is so serious.

[As a side note, though I read the hard cover version I also bought the audiobook for Bobby to listen to in the car. I heard the first few chapters and think it’s quite possible that the reader made me even more excited to continue the book on my own. Perhaps it was the British accent, or the fact that the reader (not J.K., unfortunately) had the correct inflection for the book’s subtle humor, but I would recommend the audiobook if you’re on the fence about whether or not you’d want to read it.]

What it comes down to is that this book may not be for everyone, and it certainly won’t be for anywhere close to as large of an audience as the Harry Potter series. I’ve recommended it to several people who have told me they couldn’t get into it, or finished it but didn’t really like it. And I’m recommending it here knowing that the same thing may happen. This is a book about unhappy people, plain and simple – they are unhappy in their marriages, unhappy in their relationships, unhappy with their families or just unhappy with life in general. But it’s also a book about some of the realities of life, and how it’s not always as cozy as it seems. In a world of Facebook envy where more often than not we see only the positive aspects of people’s lives (I know I’ve been guilty of it, too), reading a book that’s a little darker than normal was (perhaps oddly) refreshing for me. I may not have loved the characters the way I do with most of the novels I enjoy, but I appreciated who they were and what they were going through. I hope you do, too.

Have you read The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling? I’m curious to hear your thoughts!

Last but not least, today is a very special birthday.

Baby Papa B

Wasn’t Papa Bender cute as a baby? That’s him with my great-grandpa Walenty. January 11 is Papa Bender’s birthday, along with my godfather Bob, my cousin Jake (who is Bob’s son) and my dad and Bob’s cousin Carol. It’s so cool that they were all born on the same day. Bob and Carol were even born in the same year! Wishing all of you a fantastic day and, of course, a Packers win this weekend!



1 Susan January 11, 2013 at 2:07 pm

Happy Birthday to Papa B.! I’m glad you reviewed The Casual Vacancy. As you know, I thought it was great. True, if you’re looking for a happy ending or a kind-hearted character to root for, this isn’t the book for you. And still, I thought that certain moments of redemption made it worth it. I liked that it was straightforward, gritty, and showed the not-so-nice parts of human nature that we’d like to forget. Even though I absolutely despised some of the people, I think it’s an amazing accomplishment for an author to create characters that really come alive (whether good, bad or ugly). I also liked many of the larger themes in the book: the tension between the haves and have-nots, the idea that young people can see the truth that adults try to hide, and the idea of personal responsibility and what happens when we neglect those who most need our help.

Okay, that’s enough rambling for now. :) My ND book club discussed it earlier this week, so it’s still fresh in my mind. Love it or hate it, it led to a great discussion!

2 Jenn (eating bender) January 14, 2013 at 4:03 pm

Love your analysis, Susan! I think sometimes it’s best to read the types of books that are going to get mixed reviews depending on the person, especially when in a book club. It makes the discussions so much more lively!

3 Cara (Twinthusiast) January 11, 2013 at 2:54 pm

Excellent review. You know I didn’t love it but I was glad I read it. I think Rowling is enormously talented and I’ll read anything she turns her pen to, even if it’s not going to give me the plot-all-wrapped-up-warm-fuzzies. It was just a little depressing to witness how much people can despise each other over banal issues. But that (can be) human nature.

Happy bday Papa B! Hope you get to do something fun together.
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4 Jenn (eating bender) January 14, 2013 at 4:04 pm

I’m excited to see what her next book will bring. I have a feeling she is going to aim for something slightly more cheery this time around!

5 Monica January 12, 2013 at 10:07 am

How appropriate that I should read about this on the day that I get a notice from the Evanston library that my copy of “Casual Vacancy” is now ready to be picked up? (I added myself to the waitlist as soon as the book came out and I’m just getting this notice now!) I can’t wait to check out her new style. I will have to re-read this post once I’m finished.

Also, well done on having 2 books already read this year… that’s two more than me! “The Light Between Oceans” has been on my list so I’m hoping to check that out soon as well… I will wait to hear what you have to say about it :)

6 Jenn (eating bender) January 14, 2013 at 4:06 pm

How appropriate, indeed! Perfect timing. :) I’m excited to hear what you think – love it or hate it, the book definitely gets people talking. I think you’d love The Light Between Oceans. I’ll post a review soon!

7 Chelsea @ Designs on Dinner January 13, 2013 at 8:57 am

Green Bay is in mourning…what a perfect time to start ‘The Casual Vacancy!’
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8 Jenn (eating bender) January 14, 2013 at 4:08 pm

Haha, your comment cracked me up. :) Perfect timing!

9 Caroline January 14, 2013 at 11:39 am

I completely agree, JK Rowling is excellent at character development! I can’t wait to read her book so I’m glad you posted a positive review because I’ve been hearing a lot of negative things. I think it’s important to set expectations… of course she was going to do something completely different and I almost feel like she didn’t stand a chance with her first book after Harry just because the expectations were so high.
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10 Jenn (eating bender) January 14, 2013 at 4:10 pm

I couldn’t agree more, Caroline. Expectations were crazy high, and I don’t blame her for wanting to do something completely different from HP. It will be interesting to see what direction her next book takes. In the meantime, I’ll be curious to hear what you think once you’ve read this one!

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