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.
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 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.
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!