I don’t know if I’ve ever shared with our loyal readers the only reading/book buying rule I have never broken since I made it up in the early 2000’s. This rule states that if I must buy a book in hardcover, I must read it before the paperback edition comes out. Otherwise why did I spend the extra money? This rule has been one of the few commandments of my reading life. And I haven’t broken it until a few weeks ago with J.K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy. In addition to myself, I blame my hair stylist, who told me early this year that she was having a hard time getting into it (she is a reader too, and we often spend most of our time together talking books). I also blame the book-publishing world who had the paperback edition come out fully three months earlier than I was expecting (usually paperbacks come out about a year after the hardcover release and I thought I would have until late October to get this one done). I was appalled when I saw this one in a huge display at Powell’s in Portland. I felt like I’d failed. Yes, I know it’s just a dumb rule and no one is going to smite me down or anything, but we readers have our rituals, and this was one of mine.
So that’s how I felt when I started this one. Like a big fat failure. Especially because I brought it with me on our road trip to Oregon because I had started Paradise Lost a few days before and after reading Book One I had no idea what Milton was saying, and I knew if I took it with me in a car I would just end up sleeping instead of getting some reading done. (BTW, for me the AP English Challenge is on hold until I summon the courage to pick up that one again—talk about feeling like a failure. Try reading epic poetry about the expulsion of the angels from heaven.) My friend Katee read The Casual Vacancy right before I did, and she told me all about how much she loved it, and I was immediately concerned that my hair person had been turned against this book because it was not typical Rowling, i.e. no wizards or witches. Katee tends to have good taste in books as well, and I hate it when people who I often agree with about books disagree with each other. Who should I believe?? What do I do? So I did what any self-respecting reader in a similar situation would do: I read it for myself.
This book is a mildly intimidating five hundred three pages, so I’m glad I started it on a road trip—lots of time to make a dent. When I first read about the plot, I was surprised Rowling had stepped away from both kid lit and fantasy. I expected her first post-Harry Potter novel to be either more of the same, or at least one or the other, but not neither. That being said, there are several teenagers and a couple kids who are important characters, though the novel is definitely not a kid or young adult novel. Rowling’s gift for world-creating is as evident here as it was in the Harry Potter series, though the village of Pagford and its environs is obviously not as much of a creative leap as the wizarding world Harry lives in. I’m sure a more dedicated and artistic reader could make a map of Pagford and its vicinity with all the detail she puts into description. It would be a shame if she doesn’t revisit this world sometime. The cast of characters is pretty giant, much like Harry Potter’s universe. Some are very sharply drawn, some are a bit more fuzzy, but she didn’t have seven books to have us get to know these folks, just a few hundred pages. I think she did pretty well considering her limited time frame.
The story begins with a death: Barry Fairbrother drops dead walking into his nineteenth anniversary dinner. As a member of the Parish council, the big question is not, “What happened to him” so much as “Who is going to fill his seat?” And that’s the question that takes up the bulk of the novel. As we gradually learn, there is something of a war going on in the village council, with Barry as the head of one faction, and Howard Mollison, the other. Rowling has a grand time coming up with ever more creative ways to describe Howard’s gross obesity. In fact, I just googled “synonyms for obesity,” and I’m pretty sure she used every single one. And various combinations. The schism in the Parish Council is over a part of Pagford known as the Fields. It’s the slum of Pagford, the part that most people don’t want to even think about. Howard Mollison wants to turn the Fields back over to the nearby city of Yarvil and thus rid his beautiful Pagford of all the drug addicts and poor. Barry Fairbrother is the leader of the fight to keep the Fields part of Pagford: he is from the Fields and got out of there to make a better life for himself—he maintains that he never could have done that if it hadn’t been for the excellent education he got in the Pagford school system.
I remember that one of the essay questions on the AP English Literature test was to pick a character in a work of literature who isn’t present on the page much, if at all, but who has a huge influence on the plot/characters/whathaveyou. I picked the “gentleman caller” in Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie. If I had to write that essay today, I’d probably pick Barry Fairbrother from The Casual Vacancy. He dies less than ten pages into the book but his presence (or his absence?) is felt throughout. Be it his wife, Mary, who has a smaller role in the novel than one would think, his good friends, the girls on the rowing team he coached at the high school, or his bitter enemies from the Parish Council; his death affects all of them.
In thinking about how to approach this beast of a novel and its many varied plots and subplots, I have become a bit overwhelmed. Let me begin by saying I love reading books with casts of thousands and lots of secrets amongst them. I am beginning to hate writing about them. I even did something I try to never do before writing a post about a book: I read internet reviews. Real ones, from the New York Times and The Huffington Post, and a nice article on The Huffington Post that pulls blurbs from a bunch of reputable reviewers. And there I go again, breaking another reading rule…. I am so susceptible to making reviewer opinions my own that I try to never read what other people think about a book before I’ve fleshed out my own thoughts and opinions. You’d think I’d do that while I’m reading, right? Nope, not always. And especially not when I’m reading on a road trip. I let myself be transported to Pagford and the Fields and get into the lives of these characters in a way that no self-respecting book blogger should. I didn’t read with a critical eye. I just read to read. It was nice. But now I’m having trouble formulating a concrete opinion about the book as a whole. There were definitely characters I liked, and those I didn’t. There were subplots I appreciated, and ones I didn’t think were necessary. For example, Howard and Shirley Mollison have a daughter, Patricia, who does not live in Pagford, and who is mentioned occasionally with mild derision. There’s obviously been some sort of estrangement. Towards the end of the book, at Howard’s climactic birthday party, she actually shows up. And we learn casually that she is a lesbian (and that’s why she and her parents are not on good terms) when she mentions her partner, Melly. I, of course, have no issue with Patricia being gay. What bugs me about the situation is that she has no defining characteristics other than she is a lesbian and drives a BMW. She seems to show up for a few pages in order to tell the teenagers that Howard and his business partner Maureen have been having an affair for years. And then she gets in her car and drives away. Couldn’t they have found that out another way? By the time Pat arrives in Pagford we don’t need more evidence that Howard is a corpulent, obnoxious, self-obsessed twit. Of course he would reject his daughter for being a lesbian, and it didn’t surprise me that he and Maureen had been having an affair. When I read this section it became apparent to me that J.K. Rowling may need a less timid editor.
The more I think about the other characters besides Howard’s daughter, the more I see that quite a few of them are caricatures. There’s Howard’s daughter-in-law Samantha, the chubby cougar lush who owns a lingerie store and who has a huge crush on a member of a boy band her daughter listens to. There’s Kay the social worker, who came to Pagford on the trail of Gavin, a lawyer and Barry’s best friend. As a stereotypical social worker, she is amazing at her job, but her personal life is a shambles. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed Sam’s ridiculous “desperate housewife” machinations, and I did like Kay. She meant well and tried to do the right thing. But they lacked depth in a way.
Here is something the New York Times reviewer said: “However, the real heart of ‘The Casual Vacancy’ lies not with the town’s adults but with its teenagers, whose suffering is measured in large part by how much they deal their pain back to the people around them.” I was going to bring up a similar feeling I had, and it was nice to see that a fancy reviewer felt similarly. What I was going to say was that the teenagers Rowling creates are the most fully-realized characters in the book, probably because she has become expert at creating angsty teenagers over the years. These ones don’t have wands, of course, but they are battling plenty of real world demons. Krystal Weedon is the most troubled of the bunch. She is one of those kids from the Fields who Barry Fairbrother is trying to help by keeping it as part of Pagford. Her mom is a heroin addict who has failed rehab multiple times. Krystal has a toddler brother who she is trying to raise with minimal help from her mom, and they are falling through the cracks in the welfare system as it is in Pagford. Krystal is violent and angry on the surface but also has loving and kind attributes. She truly loves her brother and will do just about anything to keep him with her and out of foster care. She really liked Barry and being on the rowing team as well. She just wants to make connections with people but her life has made her hard and distant. By the end I liked Krystal and wanted good things for her, even though at the beginning I was less sympathetic.
The bad seed of the bunch is Stewart “Fats” Wall, so nicknamed because he is a beanpole. His father, Colin Wall, is deputy head of their school, and Fats spends most of his high school life trying to make everyone forget that connection. He is one of those middle class kids with a chip on his shoulder because he wants to have a difficult life. I suppose he is something of a caricature too, now that I think about it. But I just disliked him so much that it was hard to see beyond that to realize that his character is little more than the superficial badness. Krystal is much more well-developed. Fats’ best friend is Andrew “Arf” Price, whose father makes all the fathers in all the Pat Conroy books I’ve ever read seem like kind, gentle souls. Arf is more of a well-drawn kid than Fats. His dad is a jerk, yes, but he still does normal kid things. Actually, if it weren’t for his relationship with Arf, I would have found Fats completely without redeeming qualities.
In trying to distill down The Casual Vacancy, I’ve come to the conclusion that there are two major plot lines: the adult plot and the teenager plot. It’s been a few weeks since I finished this book, and the teenager plot is the one that has stuck with me. The Parish Council drama was interesting, for sure, but I didn’t like the adults as much as the teenagers (except Fats. I hated him). And that is funny to me because in real life I tend to gravitate away from younger people, but in this book I enjoyed reading about the kids the most. I wonder if that’s because Rowling is better at writing about young people than adults. I definitely recommend this book, though with trepidation. It is not perfect, and perhaps Rowling needed to have a more aggressive editor, but it was enjoyable and engaging, and at times brilliant.