Friday, July 25, 2014

Review: 'The Casual Vacancy' By J.K. Rowling

I recently finished The Casual Vacancy, the first novel J.K. Rowling wrote specifically for adults and her first post-Harry Potter release. If you have not read it, please look away now, as this post is not spoiler-free.

I didn't know whether or not I would like this book before I started reading. I'd read a few reviews, and they were mixed. Some people didn't like the characters, saying they were horrible people and therefore made bad protagonists.

It's true there are some conniving, cowardly, malicious, misguided, and unkind deeds afoot in Rowling's fictional town of Pagford and its neighbor, The Fields. With a variety of selfish motives, people commit crimes and misdemeanors against their fellows. A few times, compassion and humanity shine through.

Some of the residents of Pagford and the surrounding area are:

- Howard Mollison, the obese 64-year-old owner of the town's deli, and his wife Shirley
- Howard and Shirley's son Miles Mollison, a lawyer
- Samantha Mollison, owner of a boutique lingerie business and highly unsatisfied wife of Miles
- Gavin Hughes, an insurance agent
- Kay Bowden, a social worker and mother of 16-year-old Gaia. The Bowdens are transplants from London.
- Parminder Jawanda, the local general practitioner and the mom of three teenagers
- Vikram Jawanda, Parminder's impossibly gorgeous husband, a heart surgeon
- Sukhvinder Jawanda, the youngest of the Jawanda children, teased at school for being overweight and having more facial hair than is considered typically feminine. Suhkvinder feels inferior to her older brother and sister because she has a learning disability and doesn't do as well in school as them. Because she's bullied by her peers and criticized by her parents, she cuts herself to try to relieve the pain and stress.
- Andrew Price, also sixteen, one of two sons of crooked, verbally and physically abusive Simon Price and nurse Ruth Price. Andrew has a crush on Gaia Bowden.
- Stuart "Fats" Wall, a thin middle-class boy who's been Andrew's best friend since they were four years old. Fats' favorite pastimes include smoking marijuana, opposing his parents at every turn, and obsessing over "authenticity" in a Holden Caulfield-like fashion.
- Colin "Cubby" Wall, deputy headmaster at the school Fats, Andrew, Gaia, Sukhvinder and the other teens attend. A nervous, fussy man with a large, balding forehead, Colin has a hidden illness.
- Tessa Wall, the diabetic school guidance counselor, wife of Colin and adoptive mother of Stuart
- Barry Fairbrother, the town councilor, a substitute teacher, and coach of the high school rowing team whose unexpected death from a brain aneurysm kicks off the plot of the novel
- Mary Fairbrother, Barry's grieving widow and the mother of their son and twin daughters
- Krystal Weedon, the girl from The Fields, Barry's favorite rower, and the daughter of a heroin addict

Okay, so the cast of characters is as large and complicated as that of Middlemarch. Barry Fairbrother dies in the first few pages, and much of the main plot centers on Miles, Simon, Parminder, and Colin all competing to fill the empty seat - the casual vacancy of the title - on the town council created by Barry's death.

I really enjoyed this book. For one thing, it's nice to see that J.K. Rowling's spellbinding storytelling skills carry beyond the Harry Potter novels. The author is witty, she's a powerful observer of human behavior, and she writes with such intensity I get wrapped up in her fictional world to the exclusion of reality.

None of the characters are perfect by any stretch, but I did bond with some of them. Krystal and Sukhvinder are my favorites. Krystal's swaggering bravado disguised her inner vulnerability, including the fierceness with which she loved her loved ones, her ultimate undoing. In many ways she was a victim of circumstance - as was her mother, although Terri Weedon's soul-crushing mistakes seem much less excusable given that she's an adult, she should know better, and she keeps making the same stupid mistake over and addicts will do.

Sukhvinder seems to be falling apart, both from her own point of view and in the eyes of others. She doesn't seem to have much going for her, and yet she's a hidden well of strength. Through the events of the novel, Sukhvinder finds her voice and inspires her mother to become a better person.

Kudos to Rowling for writing complex, multidimensional characters who aren't stereotypes and who interact in complex ways. I'm now exciting to read the two mysteries Rowling wrote under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith. (Sigh - knock one book off my TBR list, add two more. Story of my literary life.) Apparently this book is being made into a miniseries as a collaboration between the BBC and HBO, and I look forward to seeing it.

P.S. If I were to fantasy-cast this movie, I would want Vikram to be played by the beautiful and talented Naveen Andrews, an Englishman best known to American audiences as Sayid Jarrah on Lost. (Fans self.)

It's not a great picture because we cant see his eyes, but it is Creative Commons. Image by Kanaka's Paradise Life of Honolulu, Hawaii

I purchased this book with my own funds via and was not obligated to review it in any way. My copy is a used book that came from a library sale, specifically from the Pikes Peak Library District of Colorado Springs, Colorado.

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