It’s no secret to anyone who knows me that I’m obsessed with Harry Potter. I own a pair of plastic Potter glasses. I considered Hermione as a middle name for my baby (don’t worry, I had a boy). I once stood in line at the Astor Place Barnes and Noble at midnight to get the latest installment of my beloved series (I was 24. Everyone else was 16). It was there, in New York, that I read Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone for the first time, in the wake of September 11th. Call it a lifeline, call it escapism — I devoured every page of the series without even realizing how important Harry’s world would eventually become to me. A few years later, I couldn’t have imagined a life where the word “Hogwarts” wasn’t part of the everyday vernacular. Often dark, even heartbreaking, Harry’s world — the one Rowling painstakingly imagined — was a refuge. An ode to hope, and joy, and laughter. A world that got kids reading again and reminded all of us that trying to be good isn’t just a futile act — it matters. So it was with great anticipation that I downloaded The Casual Vacancy, J.K. Rowling’s new adult novel, to my iPad and started reading.
Let me start by saying that I don’t agree with any of the naysayers who are either offended by a little bit of swearing (grow up), traumatized by the idea of their children picking up the book (don’t let them), or randomly angry at Rowling for not stamping a disclaimer across the cover that it’s a different genre or that it costs $17.99 on Kindle (I’m not going to even dignify that one with a response). But I do have an embarrassing confession to make, one that’s probably not even legal to admit in a book review: about sixty pages in, I quit the book.
I figured six days would be plenty of time to read and write a review of a 512-page book — a Rowling book — but I didn’t count on it being so relentlessly depressing. J.K.’s latest tome is grim (really grim), and it lacks that one piece of the puzzle — the special sauce, if you will — that made Harry Potter so irresistible: hope. There’s no joy in this book, no heart. It’s a depressing tale of small-minded people in a fictional town in modern England, and it tackles every shocking topic out there, from rape, to abuse, to suicide and drug addiction. A strange blend of genres, the book feels at times like political satire, at others like straight-up tragedy. Rowling stated that the novel was originally titled “Responsibility,” and that gives us a pretty good idea of what her goal was with the book: to make a case for human kindness. To expose modern England’s underbelly by juxtaposing biting social commentary with extreme dysfunction. I admire Rowling’s mission here to the nth degree — I just don’t think she pulls it off in a compelling narrative. Her characters are so unlikable, there’s nothing, and no one, to sink your teeth into. Her descriptions (the three-year-old’s crusty bottom; the condom gleaming in the sun) feel like poverty porn: too over-the-top, and they don’t hold their weight.
While many critics have panned the book, others applaud it. I won’t claim that my subjective opinion is the right one. In fact, there may be a whole audience of readers out there who love this book. I just doubt they’re the same ones who loved Harry Potter. Because that’s essentially the problem: most Potter fanatics don’t want to read a book as bleak as this one — because it’s just not the kind of book we like.
I still heart Jo Rowling. I still think her 2008 Harvard Commencement address, which I got to attend thanks to some very powerful magic, is amazetown. I just didn’t love this book, or even like it. Final confession: I heard the finale was Thomas Hardy-dismal, so I flipped to the end. Let’s just say it was the opposite of uplifting. (But hey, maybe I’m under the spell of a powerful Confundus Charm. If you loved this book, tell me why I’m wrong. Because I’d really love to be).