Books with buzz: The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling

At least once a month, I waste entirely too much time in one of my most favourite places: Chapters.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m all for the triumph of the independent bookstore – I’ve watched the movie You’ve Got Mail on repeat, after all – but there’s something about the endless shelves of books in this particular big box store that make me feel like Belle discovering the Beast’s library for the first time. Sue me.

On a routine visit last month, those oh-so-strategically placed books on display at the cash halted me. Somehow, despite usually having my finger on the pulse of all things news-related, I had MISSED that J.K Rowling was releasing a new book. And here it was, right in front of me.

As the cashier asked me a second time if I’d be paying debit or credit, she noticed what had caught my attention. “Oh,” she said. “It’s gotten really mixed reviews. One of my friends said it was so bad she couldn’t even finish it.” My jaw must have dropped in indignant disbelief as I handed her the book and said I’d take it anyway.

Could J.K Rowling, one of the greatest authors of our time, really churn out something that was “so bad”? Obviously I had to investigate this for myself.

Perhaps my life’s most (and only) hipster claim is that I read Harry Potter before it was famous. Ya, ya, I know what you’re thinking, “You. Are. A. Liar.” But it’s true.

Okay, well before it was famous in North America, anyway.

At 10-years-old I had an obsession with watching the Rosie O’Donnell show after school. On one memorable episode, Rosie hosted a rather shy and homely looking woman  – J.K Rowling. At this point, the books were not even sold in the United States. Rosie gave her a laptop.

Be jealous of my totally vintage book.

My mom, who was eavesdropping – obviously – thought the story sounded like something her book-loving daughter would enjoy (Ps – I had SO many friends). So she actually got the first book entitled “Harry Potter and the PHILOSOHER’S stone” shipped from the U.K. I loved it and she ordered the following two. By the time I got my hands on the fourth one, HP had become a worldwide sensation and my avant-garde life was over at the young age of 12.

ANYWAY. That small tangent was all to say I’ve been a long time fan of Rowling’s work. Enter The Casual Vacancy, her first adult novel.

It took me exactly five pages to realize this book was going to be the farthest thing from a stroll through Hogwarts. In the first few paragraphs, Barry Fairbrother, a well-respected community man (read: Muggle), in the small town of Pagford, England, dies suddenly of a brain aneurism, leaving his sobbing wife to fall to pieces on the steps of a restaurant where they were to spend their nineteenth wedding anniversary.

Cute, right?

About as steamy as it gets for HP.

By page eight, Rowling throws in a paragraph dedicated entirely to one woman’s cleavage. YA, this is all coming from the woman who left sex almost entirely out of a series about TEENAGERS.

So, it didn’t surprise me to read reviews like the New York Times’ flagging Rowling’s first adult novel as  “so willfully banal, so depressingly clichéd that “The Casual Vacancy” is not only disappointing — it’s dull.”

The book only gets a 3.3 on Good Reads (UnputdownableBC’s holy grail). Comparatively, Fifty Shades of Grey gets a 3.6.

Can’t even compare these two.

COULD IT BE that J.K Rowling has lost her touch, has been replaced by “progressive minds” (read: terrible authors) like E.L James, that she really, as I first thought, should have quit while she was ahead?

In my opinion… not at all.

The Casual Vacancy may not be a mastered tale of spells, magical creatures and unlikely heroes,  but it’s about real life – AND – it’s written with the descriptive expertise you would and should expect from this author.

Sure the themes of suicide, rape, addiction, domestic abuse and allusions to patricide and perversion had no place beyond platform 9 ¾, but as someone who literally grew up in time with Harry Potter, I’m ready to handle those topics.

The biggest criticism of The Casual Vacancy is that Rowling tried to overcompensate for her claim to fame as a child’s author by cramming every possible depressing social issue into one 503 page novel. But, what is more depressing than Rowling’s narrative, which is, by the way, peppered with sarcasm and humour, is that these issues do exist – in every city, and in every town. Suburban England included.

In my personal opinion, which is by no means expert, she nails the multi-perspective commentary with believable characters and the same kind of descriptive qualities that left no doubt in my mind that Vernon Dursley would appear exactly as purple-faced in the film as I had imagined him in my mind.

In summary, I feel as though if someone ELSE had written this novel (try Jonathan Franzen, whose style I find similar), this book would have been praised.

Or read The Casual Vacancy and don’t be calm at all.

If, by picking up the most recent work of a mastermind who transfixed the 21st century with an ageless story of good vs. evil, you expect something as uplifting and life-changing, than save yourself the $37 dollars.

But, if J.K Rowling made you the reader you are today, by enriching your child mind with award-winning prose and complex characters, then you may just be ready for what she reveals in the dark and twisted world of Pagford.

I know I was.


About Catherine Kitts

Catherine wrote her first story when she was four-years-old. It was entitled "The Nest" and she won a prize for it. Naturally, that lead her down a path destined to, one day, write best sellers ….. Or at least read them. Somewhere between getting a Bachelor of Journalism from Carleton University, slinging drinks professionally (and otherwise), becoming the editor of a local newspaper, and partying her face off at every chance she gets, Catherine found time to proudly hold a title as "founding member" of the Unputdownable book club. Thought provoking, life inspiring or heartstring-pulling fiction is what interests her most. In fact, if it were acceptable, Catherine would be completely content quitting all jobs and ignoring all social engagements to simply curl up with a book - day in and day out. When she's not writing for her newspaper, her blog, or this blog, Catherine is furthering her love of news, gossiping about The Bachelor, dying in a hot yoga class, traveling someplace new, cheering on a hockey game, planning an adventurous future, or even more likely, having a cocktail … or ten. Twitter @catkitts / @inanutshellca
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8 Responses to Books with buzz: The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling

  1. Nick Frate says:

    I was delighted by your jab at E.L James; would have only enjoyed it more had you decided to also take aim at Stephanie Meyer. But who am I to judge? Humans love garbage. McDonald’s may not make the best hamburgers in the world, but it hasn’t stopped them from dominating that particular market. I suppose ’50 Shades of Lame’ and ‘Tweenlight’ are just junk food for the mind.


  2. Julia Kent says:

    umm, Nick… i freakin’ love mcdonalds. so don’t hate. but you’re right, THESE are the best hamburgers in the world:


  3. Nick Frate says:

    ouuu, I will try this ‘best hamburger’ recipe and report back. Schmanks!


  4. Carly P. says:

    Catherine, you are HILARIOUS. The part about you having lots of friends was a high point for me. I’m sure we could have been 10-year-old book-loving pals!


  5. Pingback: Over a cup of tea… | The Domestic Blonde

  6. Pingback: Over a cup of tea…

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