There it is, put away on the shelf – it only took about four months, but I finally finished The Casual Vacancy. Before I say anything else, I want to make sure I’m clear that the book itself is not responsible for the absurdly long reading time, that was (mostly) all about my bad reading habits.
That said though, there are some definite faults with this book that, I hate to say, made it a little easier to keep up those bad habits. I love JK Rowling, really really love her. The Harry Potter books are some of the most wonderful books ever, if you ask me, and not just because I totally want to be a Hogwarts student (true story). They made people – kids, adults, and everyone in between – read in a way that people just don’t seem to anymore. I have never in my whole life seen anyone line up for a book, let alone 7 books, and wait in line for hours for them. Rowling did something so amazing with those books, creating a huge, almost Dickensian world full of rich characters that, most importantly, everyone could identify with. If Harry was a super-handsome-genuis-athlete-ladies-man kind of hero, most of us would’ve never loved him in the first place. If Ron and Hermione were the extra-pretty-shiny sidekicks that most movies, TV shows and books feature nowadays, we wouldn’t really have cared what became of them. They have flaws and weaknesses and secrets and have done good things and bad things and want things they can’t have and don’t always see the things that make them lucky and are good friends to each other and get in fights and are all three incredibly brave. So many characters today have one or two of these traits which make them One Thing or The Other, but Rowling’s characters all have all of them. That’s what makes them real.
The characters in The Casual Vacancy are the same – this is, as I said when I talked about this book before, Rowling’s greatest strength, I think – and that is the book’s selling point. I refused to read any reviews before or while reading the book, but I just now had a scan of a few – some I agree with, some not so much. Seriously? You’re ‘shocked’ by the adult content? Sigh. That’s just dumb. Don’t read grown-up books then.*
Several reviews that I saw said that the characters were all unlikeable. Yes, I suppose I can see that one, but I don’t agree with it. I think most of the characters are unhappy for various reasons and they all deal with it in their own way – some tuck it deep down, some let it out for everyone to see, some are aggressive, some deny it completely. No, it’s not a happy, jolly book. Is there some reason that a book about unhappy people is a problem? Think about Great Expectations – are those characters all happy people?! I don’t think they are all miserable wallowers either though and I kind of think that if there’s not one of those characters whose unhappiness, large or small, you can identify with somehow, you’re not really being honest.
My real problem with The Casual Vacancy is, as you might have guessed because I haven’t mentioned it once yet, is the plot. Being that there isn’t really one. And yet the book always kind of feels like it’s just on the verge of breaking out into some Very Interesting Conflict. It’s all about quiet struggles, the ones that simmer just beneath the surface of everyday crap and are rarely acknowledged directly. Which might be more realistic, but makes a tricky book to read. I never felt like I couldn’t put it down, which hardly forced me to work on making more time for reading. Harry Potter was a special combination of a juicy (and inspiring) plot with depth of character that made you feel you were part of it too (because the characters are just like you). When I think about this book this time next year, I expect I will remember some of the characters I cared for most – almost exclusively the teenage group – but very little about what actually happens to them through most of the book.
There’s a lot more I could say about it actually, stuff about small town life and all that, but I think I’ll leave it there. I’m not sure I loved The Casual Vacancy but it made me think a lot about writing and class attitudes and a million other things, so I guess that’s a success in my world. I’m a dork though. Did you read The Casual Vacancy? What did you make of it?
(Next up: Stephen King’s Carrie. Yes, I have eclectic taste.)
*Note to add: not that I think think books need to be ‘adult’. Actually, I mostly think that more books could stand to leave out ‘adult’ things that just feel pasted in. But I am not ‘shocked’ by them. The reviews that claimed to be ‘shocked’ all came across, to me, as making a point of being conservative just for the sake of being conservative. That seems equally silly to me.