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The Casual Vacancy

October 10, 2012

One fine Saturday morning in September, Ron got up way before dawn to drive an hour to the airport, fly to Chicago, fly to Des Moines, and then rent a car and drive for another hour to see Eleanor at Grinnell. He brought her a book from the airport. The same morning, our friend Carol got up at dawn to drive my mother an hour to the airport and then go to a bookstore to get us each a copy of J.K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy. Then she drove an hour back and delivered mine before noon. So Eleanor and Carol and I were all reading the book at the same time, like half the English-speaking population of the world.

After reading the first third, Eleanor said what I was thinking (and what Lev Grossman had previously observed)–that it’s a book about the Dursleys, complete with the repulsively fat and obtuse father figure, the fluttering and ineffectual mother figure, and the indulged and abused children growing up side by side. You may think that’s an exaggeration, because the Dursleys were clearly villainous for comic effect. The characters in this novel are just as villainous, but less active (there the title is accurate—it not only frames the plot, centering on the small-town politics of England, but also describes the atmosphere, in which no one does much of anything at all). The best thing about the novel is the complicated plot and how all the details come together, but my complaint is that there is no one to like.

I tried to like the teenagers, in turn, but they were each eventually revealed to be ill-treated and likely to grow up pretty much like their adult oppressors. I might have been able to like the mothers, except that they took turns standing around wringing their hands about how their children are fucking each other, both literally and metaphorically. There were moments when I’d feel I had something in common with one of them, like when Tessa thinks “how awful it was…the way tiny ghosts of your living children haunted your heart; they could never know, and would hate it if they did, how their growing was a constant bereavement.” And then I’d take a figurative step back in horror and resolve to never feel like that again, lest I turn into the same kind of ineffectual and deeply depressed woman.

The worst families, the ones with children who get beaten and raped, are the ones in which everything stays the same. Even after Andrew, one of the abused teenagers, exposes one part of his father’s monstrosity to the world, he “watched and waited, losing hope every day. He had tried to show the world what his father was, and the world, it seemed, had merely shrugged.” For Krystal, who doesn’t have parents and tries to care for her younger brother, things stay the same for so long that she finally gives in and lets the family entropy take over. There are only a couple of families who seem affected at all by the sordid events of the plot. One responds by planning to move from the small town back to London. The other responds by being a little nicer to the child they almost lost.

The culmination of Rowling’s characteristic distaste and intolerance for anyone overweight in her fiction is the impassioned speech a character who is a doctor makes about how hypocritical it is for someone fat to refuse to support local efforts to help someone addicted to drugs:
“Do you know how much your bypass cost, and your drugs, and your long stay in hospital? And the doctor’s appointments you take up with your asthma and your blood pressure and the nasty skin rash, which are all caused by your refusal to lose weight?”
Yes, in this world it’s quite clear-cut that fat people choose to be that way, whereas drug addicts can’t help it.

This is a novel about small-minded people in a stiflingly small town and by the end I was so disgusted with all of them that I was glad they end unhappily. They deserve everything they get, and more.

If you’re already feeling misanthropic, don’t read this novel. If you want to make the world a better place, don’t read it because you’ll be discouraged. In fact, I can’t imagine why anyone would read it. Don’t read it. And if you’ve started it (like Carol and Eleanor), don’t finish it.

41 Comments leave one →
  1. October 10, 2012 8:13 am

    I won’t then. I was somewhat interested in reading something she’s written for adults (given my lack of interest in the entire Potter series) but your review steered me straight 🙂

    • October 11, 2012 7:23 am

      I would say this is not your kind of dark. It’s preachy in a “there but for the grace of God” way.

  2. October 10, 2012 9:03 am

    As usual, you and I are complete opposite here. I really expected to hate this book. I didn’t buy it, but got on the library hold list, and didn’t expect to read more than a few pages before giving up. But I tried, and ended up really enjoying it. My review will go up tomorrow.

    Also, I didn’t see Parminder’s outburst as saying that drug users can’t help themselves but fat people can. I saw it as saying that both situations are complicated, and that food can be an addiction just as much as drugs can, which of course is true. It’s not the cause of every case of obesity, nor does it always result in obesity, but there are so many food-related disorders out there!

    • October 10, 2012 9:34 am

      and, just 2 cents not having read the context… Some drugs cause weight gain and that is darn hard to lose and often is a fearful choice to make. Not personal experience, just knowing a friend who has issues…

    • October 11, 2012 7:27 am

      I’m amused that we’re opposites on this one, and very glad you said that here because obviously some people can enjoy this book. My daughter (Eleanor) told me she will not stop reading it; she has to see for herself.
      I don’t see Rowling’s characters as sympathetic to fat people enough to even say that they have an addiction; I think all her characters see them as weak-willed and repulsive.
      This does not necessarily mean that the author herself feels this way. But it does happen in all her books, so I wonder.

  3. October 10, 2012 9:07 am

    Eh, I might read it anyway even though I might have the same problem I had with the Frantzen novel: there’s no one to like because no one’s likeable. I’ll check it out from the library, though, rather than buy it.

    • October 11, 2012 7:29 am

      If you’re really into small-town English politics, you might enjoy the two-dimensional characterization of the politicians.

  4. CSchu permalink
    October 10, 2012 9:10 am

    Thanks, Jeanne. I think I will stop reading now. I think my original instincts on hearing about this book were correct. I will not like the way it turns out. Hard to put down, though it will be, I will move on to other cheerier, lighter books that I have waiting in the wings. (Like “The Girl who Circumnavigated Fairlyland in a Ship of Her Own Making,” which both you and Sarah have recommended. (She has the second one, by the way, on the Kindle.) And… I have a few other things as well that I picked up in that Saturday run to B&N.

    • October 11, 2012 7:30 am

      I’m absurdly pleased that you trust me on this. I think your reaction might be even more extreme than mine, in fact. And I will note that you’ve known me longer than Eleanor has…

  5. October 10, 2012 9:30 am

    Whew, saves me a lot of trouble. I really didn’t have any interest anyway. (But am sad that my bookmooched HP#5 seems to be lost in the mail.)

    • October 11, 2012 7:33 am

      I do adore the Harry Potter books. An academic friend of mine once said to me that they are “overwritten” and I’ve constructed imaginary arguments against that ever since, although I haven’t gone as far as reading all the “Word of God” excerpts available on Pottermore, as Eleanor has.

  6. October 10, 2012 9:31 am

    I didn’t even need to hear the details – one text message from Jenny did it for me. Sounds gruesome. Also, you are so right about JK’s intense distaste for overweight people – it’s a little bit disturbing how she seems to equate number of fat cells with evil. Luckily for her, as she approaches menopause, she will be able to afford a personal chef and trainer to maintain her girlish figure and continue to feel like one of the “good” people. Oh, does that sound snarky? 😛

    • October 11, 2012 7:35 am

      It does sound snarky and I thank you very much for that. I am trying to be fair about whether this is the author’s attitude or just one she sees a lot in modern-day England, but it’s more satisfying to attribute it to her and hope that one day she is on the other side of the issue, perhaps “not waving but drowning.”

  7. October 10, 2012 9:32 am

    Oh, and also – isn’t it A Casual Vacancy? Not The?

    • October 11, 2012 7:37 am

      It is “the” which goes to show that in every particular, this novel chooses to be general.

  8. October 10, 2012 10:15 am

    Thanks Jeanne. I had started the book and couldn’t finish it and felt bad about it. I told Hank, just what you said, I couldn’t find anyone to like. Given that you agree I don’t feel so bad about not finishing it.

    • October 11, 2012 7:39 am

      I wouldn’t feel bad at all! On the other hand, I do have to finish novels I don’t like, or I end up imagining the ending for far longer than it would take me to finish reading the way the author ended it, so there’s actually a bit of irony in my urging friends and family not to finish it, as they well know.

  9. October 10, 2012 11:02 am

    I read another review that said the characters were unlikeable, but I was still debating it. I think you’ve settled me though – I won’t read it! 🙂

    • October 11, 2012 7:40 am

      Read Angelmaker by Nick Harkaway instead. You’ll get some of the same English attitude without the moping.

  10. October 10, 2012 2:52 pm

    I’m listening to it now. Anyone expecting anything like Harry potter will be sore disappointed. I’m going to continue on despite your warnings. Gotta see for myself and all that.

    • October 11, 2012 7:41 am

      I would probably be the same way. I had to see for myself. Just know that it’s a morbid curiosity.

  11. October 10, 2012 7:45 pm

    I second everything you have said, and I am sort of delighted at the precision and efficiency with which I prevented my mother from ever reading it. I have such power and insight.

    Did Eleanor and Carol stop reading it at your recommendation?

    • October 11, 2012 7:42 am

      As I noted above, Carol–who has known me since we were 18–stopped reading it. Eleanor–who has known me for all 18 years of her life and learned her stubbornness at my knee–did not.

  12. aartichapati permalink
    October 10, 2012 10:06 pm

    Oh, bummer. I admit I was part of the 50% of the population that did NOT immediately read this book. I am somewhat surprised that Rowling didn’t use a nom de plume to write this one – so much pressure on her to do well!

    I have never noticed Rowling’s distaste towards overweight people, which surprises me. However, I think I agree with Amanda on the quote above, unless perhaps I am not getting the full impact of the conversation from your excerpt. It sounds like the doctor (in, admittedly, not the most PC manner) is pointing out that we all have our flaws and struggles, and judging one person’s behavior when you have your own issues isn’t very fair. I didn’t get a sense of overweight people choosing to be fat while drug addicts can’t help it, but more that everyone has to struggle to overcome SOMETHING, so it would be easier if people would stop trying to win the moral high ground all the time.

    BUT, I haven’t read the book 🙂

    • October 11, 2012 7:46 am

      The doctor is not being rational at all in the scene I took the quotation about fat-hating from. She is ranting. It is the beginning of the denouement. Her disgust with the physical aspect of her fat patient has been building up, in addition to her distaste for his politics, up to this point in the novel.

  13. October 10, 2012 10:48 pm

    I’ve had several people tell me not to read this book. Which is good, really, there are too many books. There need to be a few that I choose not to read.

    • October 11, 2012 7:50 am

      I might also say that it’s a book Americans can skip. We don’t have the same kind of problem in enough of the same way that it matters…in this country, we’ve gotten religion tangled into how we decide to allocate money for the poor and drug-addicted.

  14. October 11, 2012 3:30 am

    Thank you for your eternal candor–I had a near-miss with the book myself. Instead of buying it, I bought cookies at Barnes and Nobel, and took my mom–visiting us for the first time as a widow–on a picnic.

    That was a worthwhile use of time.

    • October 11, 2012 7:54 am

      I’m not trying to say that the book is a waste of time as much as I’m trying to say that I don’t respond to preaching when there isn’t a character I can identify with and perhaps try to emulate. The person who dies at the beginning and creates the casual vacancy is supposed to be that, I think, but it doesn’t work.

  15. October 11, 2012 7:34 am

    Ugh. The weight thing always bothered me in Harry Potter and it sounds like it’s even worse here :\

    • October 11, 2012 7:55 am

      It is worse here because so naked. We have to literally see the rash under the folds of fat on the character the doctor screams at.

  16. October 11, 2012 8:47 am

    This is so disappointing to hear. I had high hopes for this book.

  17. Tabatha permalink
    October 11, 2012 9:29 am

    I ordered the book before it came out, which is too bad because I wouldn’t have if I’d read reviews first. Likable characters are a MUST for me. I am sorry that Rowling didn’t release it under a nom de plume. Too much disappointment for us and pressure on her this way.

    • October 11, 2012 9:39 am

      I can see your point, but I admire her courage. I personally believe in trying to do everything under my real name.

  18. October 15, 2012 12:56 pm

    I had high hopes for this and even held onto those faint hopes for the first bit of the book. But then I felt as if the whole thing became too convoluted, not well enough defined (or perhaps too broadly) in terms of the cast of characters and I just lost interest. Too bad I am of the must finish it if I start camp. It just got more tedious as I went along. ::sigh::

  19. October 15, 2012 5:12 pm

    “Tedious” is a very good word for this novel.

  20. November 4, 2012 6:43 pm

    Wow, do you know Lev Grossman? I love his Magician books, can’t wait for announcements on his final book in the series!

    • November 4, 2012 7:03 pm

      Ah, never mind. It was just a link to his review Lol

      • November 5, 2012 7:21 am

        I do love his Magician books, and many of his book reviews!


  1. 2012 Review Extravaganza: Pt. 5 | Life…With Books

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