Review: A Casual Vacancy, J. K. Rowling

Y’all know what I hate? I hate it when reviewers say shit like this:

Chances are none of these people will be deemed sufficiently “likable” by the pop-culture-coddled, uplift-craving audience that makes up a goodly portion of Rowling fandom. But hats off to her for not toning things down an iota in order to please them.

It’s irritating when a reviewer implies that people who didn’t like a book she liked are somehow a less virtuous kind of reader than she is (in this case, the kind of reader who doesn’t want to think about Important Social Issues); or to suggest that she knows why all the people who didn’t like a book didn’t like it. Don’t patronize me, Laura Miller! I don’t patronize you for wailing and gnashing your teeth over the discovery that CS Lewis’s books were influenced by his ideology just like the books of every author in the history of time. The people in A Casual Vacancy aren’t likable, as it happens, but as I have previously pointed out, the problem for me isn’t unlikable but unliked. I know this is true in the case of J. K. Rowling’s book because I occasionally had flashes of not minding the characters, and these always occurred because someone else in the story was displaying evidence of liking them. And the only character who liked most of the other characters died on page 3.

And really, it’s not because the characters do bad things. I like complicated characters in books. But these characters are near-uniformly hateful to everyone, and just, that is not how human people are. Even pretty awful people are sometimes kind. Even psychopathic killers have been nice to someone, and you know this is true because whenever there is a horrific massacre someone comes forward and says “He was also so polite and kind when he came in to my store for a large supply of Twix candies.” Being perpetually hateful does not make a character any more complicated than being perpetually good would, but it somehow gets a pass where a character of perfect virtue would be ripped to critical shreds.

The characters are also — and this, I think, is a fault of the book and not an incompatibility between the type of book it is and the type of reader I am — difficult to tell apart. There are a lot of them, all called things like Maureen and Shirley, and since nobody likes anybody else and they all spend their time gossiping about each other and resenting their spouses and parents and children, it’s hard to feel that it is even worthwhile trying to tell them apart. I kept having to flip back and check which asshole husband and which disaffected teens went with the mom who had the crush on the tweeny rock group.

Also a fault of the book (in my opinion): The ending. I’m so indignant about this ending! To the highlightable text for an indignant discussion! So at the end, the underprivileged girl takes her little brother out and goes to have sex with her school sex friend, but they’re having too much sex to pay attention to the underprivileged toddler so he wanders out and falls in the river and drowns, and then the underprivileged girl is so heartbroken she commits suicide. This all happens very suddenly right at the end and frankly feels like Rowling’s cheaty way of putting a tidy end to that storyline without its feeling unfairly optimistic. The messy but real thing — the outcome that the story earned — would be that the drug clinic would close, and the mother would relapse, and Child Protection would take Krystal and Robbie away and put them in separate homes. The ending Rowling uses is just so preachy and fakey and manipulatively heartstringsy, to the point that I, who am pretty softhearted, was too irritated to get heartstrings-tugged by it. I will accept a too-tidy happy ending, with reservations, but I will get very gripey about a too-tidy unhappy ending.

That said, this isn’t my kind of book, and I doubt I’d have liked it even if the characters were perfectly distinguishable and the ending a tour-de-force. I do not care for books about everyone being hateful to everyone else in petty undermining ways. I don’t care if Laura Miller does turn up her nose at me. I like books in which people are kind to each other, like Les Miserables. I tear up every time I read that whole first part about the priest and I don’t care if you judge me.

I did love that the book had a layered portrayal of the problems of poverty: not presenting easy solutions, and not sentimentalizing people, and not giving a pass to the people who refuse to see the layers of problems that lead to poverty. And if I didn’t already love J. K. Rowling forever (WHICH I DO; let there never be any mistake about that; cf., my entire childhood), I would love her forever for writing a book in which the child protection worker is not only not evil and malicious, but is actually going out of her way to help her clients. And even the subsidiary child protection worker, who does not go out of her way to help her clients, is not portrayed as an evil person. Just overworked and exhausted.

(Shut up, entire rest of fiction including film, comics, and especially TV shows. Child protection workers are not evil, and they are not conspiring to take your protagonists’ kids. Nobody wants your protagonists’ rotten kids.)

Other reviews: These from the Book Blogs Search Engine. Iris has an interesting post about the release of the book; Amy has some thoughts about YA vs adult literature vis-a-vis Casual Vacancy; Natalie posted reading updates culminating in a review; Kerry is doing a readalong; and Alice loves the book so far and thinks I’m wrong (but I am very curious what she will make of the ending).