An Unsolicited Review of J.K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy

When I saw The Casual Vacancy for sale at Target, I didn’t think twice. I threw it in my cart on top of the diapers and Halloween candy.

I love the Harry Potter series. I love J.K. Rowling’s writing, as overblown as it can be. I love her characters, even the bad guys. I love her mythology — English welfare single mom scrapes by and writes novel in cafes, is now richer than The Queen.

And, I really liked The Casual Vacancy, Rowling’s quote-unquote adult novel.

In The Casual Vacancy, Rowling creates sympathetic, yet realistic, characters. The Casual Vacancy is chock full of not-so-lovely people, some of whom I found myself rooting for. She tells a story about these people in such a way that I wanted to find out what happened to them.

Our characters, many of whom are teens, are, on the surface, speaking in literary terms, anti-heroes rather than protagonists. The pretentious Fats, the long-suffering Sukhvinder, the trashy Krystal Wheedon, the victimized Andrew. The adults aren’t much more appealing — again, on the surface. As the plot unfolds, and characters develop, they become more (or less) sympathetic, and we start to glimpse the possibility of redemption for some of them.

The thing about the Casual Vacancy that Harry Potter fans may not like is that it’s not a simple story. It’s not good versus evil, love conquers all. At its center is not a poorly-treated orphan boy, The Boy Who Lived. As a matter of fact, at the center of The Casual Vacancy is The Man Who Died, and how his absence reverberates through the small English community of which he was a part.

And that’s the other thing about The Casual Vacancy: It is, to coin a phrase, based in gritty realism. It shows a side of British culture that we, as Americans, may not be accustomed to seeing. Great Britain isn’t all royalty, beefeaters, lovely accents, and Colin Firth. This is the Great Britain that was J.K. Rowling’s world before the success of Harry Potter: poverty and its attendant miseries, small town small-mindedness.

Rowling doesn’t shy away from sex, death, addiction, self-delusion, abuse, pride or prejudice. It’s not sordid gratuitousness; her writing feels, to me, authentic and sincere. Maybe it’s the matter-of-factness of it that keeps it grounded. It reads to me without pretension or exaggeration.

A friend of mine once posited that Rowling needs a ruthless editor. The Casual Vacancy will not disabuse her of that notion. The first time we follow Fats Wall on his stroll through Pagford is ample proof of that.

Additionally, as I mentioned, many of the characters in this story are teens — just as in the Harry Potter series. Sukhvinder may be the only sympathetic teen. There is a *ton* of teen angst, and not the amusing sort that Harry Potter characters suffer (maybe the angst was just as annoying, but as the HP characters are more sympathetic, it made it more bearable). I sprained my eyeballs rolling them when I read Fats’ thoughts about authenticity and inauthenticity.

If there’s a fault with the book, it’s that it is so very humorless. Humor in the dark is something that Rowling did successfully in the HP series, and I wish she had invested some of that here.

Ultimately, though, I found The Casual Vacancy to be a compelling read, and I would recommend it.

An Unsolicited Review of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2

Look, you just can’t equate the Harry Potter books and the Harry Potter movies. If you have read the books as obsessively or repeatedly as I have — which, admit, you have done — you are just bound to be disappointed.

The final movie… I could go on and on about what was missing. Dumbledore’s back story, for one. A huge part of the final book, and utterly ignored in the movie. The movie did not do the battle of Hogwarts justice, and it significantly changed the final battle between Voldemort and Harry. Also: Harry’s decision about the Elder Wand. Book: So well done. Movie: *snore*.

However, as a stand-alone series of movies, I think the franchise holds up well. My husband saw every movie, and has yet to read all the books. (He has read bits and pieces, and as a matter of fact, he was reading the last few chapters of book seven when I finally went to bed Sunday night. For the record, honey, that’s cheating.)

The movies had to focus on Harry and Harry’s story. It couldn’t tackle Hermione’s movement to free house elves (S.P.E.W.); it left out characters such as Ludo Bagman and Neville’s parents. The maze at the end of Goblet of Fire was far better in the book than the creepy, mind-altering maze in the movie. These are things that book fans have to resign themselves to when viewing movie adaptations.

For capturing the story and for closing the epic, I give Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 two thumbs up. Do I have criticisms? Sure, but I really enjoyed this movie — like many of the others — for what it was.

Here are just some random thoughts.

Best Scene Not in the Book: Ron and Hermione’s kiss in the Chamber of Secrets. In the movie, Ron and Hermione explain that they want to go get the basilisk fangs to destroy the rest of the Horcruxes. We see them enter the chamber (“Did you notice Harry talks in his sleep?”), and we see Hermione stab the Horcrux. After the resulting Horcrux reaction, Ron and Hermione lock lips, and it was great. I cheered. (In the book, they kiss, but under slightly different circumstances.)

Second Best Scene Not in the Book: Neville taking out the bridge to Hogwarts with an army of Snatchers and Death Eaters at his back. Brilliant!

Best Scene in the Book that was Also in the Movie: Mrs. Weasley’s battle with Bellatrix Lestrange. Awesome.

Scene from the Book the Movie Absolutely Nailed: Harry going through Snape’s memories in the Pensieve. Perfectly, beautifully done. Alan Rickman as Professor Snape has always been my favorite Harry Potter villain  — or maybe I should say ‘anti-hero’.

I will miss having new Harry Potter adventures to revel in. Who knows, maybe J.K. Rowling has plans to write more about Teddy Lupin — another orphaned boy whose parents died fighting Voldemort. I’m not sure how much I will poke around at Pottermore come October because, let’s face it, there are only so many hours in the day, and I’m not sure I can take on another online obsession.

But I look forward to my children being old enough to read the Harry Potter books. At some point, I will let them watch the movies, too, but I know my preference would be for them to read first, watch later. The books are deeper, richer, more complex and immersive. The movies are just good entertainment.