I admit, I’ve been remiss. I haven’t been keeping you all up-to-date with the GGG book club’s choices for… um… approximately a year. Whoops. I know you have all been tearing out your hair and wailing (internally): But Dilovely, the books! Forget the rest of this drivel… the BOOKS!
I promise I will rectify the situation. We have been reading some really good books, worth writing home about.
But since this is one of the few times I actually bought a book (a virtual one, anyway) so soon after its release, I feel the need to tell you something about it post-haste. I usually don’t feel urgency about books – so far, basically just Emily Giffin and Jo-Ro have inspired this in me.
Most of you already know I’m a devoted Harry Potter fan, and am training my son to be a wizard (and my daughter too, eventually). That is why I was really excited to read The Casual Vacancy, by J.K. Rowling. Her first book written “for adults”. I knew it would not be in the same vein as HP, but I figured I’d be guaranteed to enjoy it.
It’s a story of a small (fictional) town in England, with a “small-world” feel, where everyone knows each other and is all up in each other’s business. The sudden death of one well-known man creates shock waves in the community, and the reader discovers how it affects the lives of the people he knew – and even some he didn’t.
(In case you are wondering, “The Casual Vacancy” refers to the deceased’s spot on the Parish Council that must be filled when he dies.)
Here are my thoughts and estimations – without spoilers.
You will likely be disappointed if:
- You’re waiting for any mention whatsoever of Quidditch, Butterbeer, Animagi, or Hungarian Horntails. Sorry. There aren’t even any house-elves.
- You want the action to revolve around one hero – here, the reader is privy to the thoughts of well over a dozen characters over the course of the book.
- You expect any one of those characters to be as winsome as Harry (except in Order of the Phoenix when he’s kinda bitchy).
- You prefer plots to follow predictable lines and/or contain lots of action and/or suspense.
- You’d like to see the whole plot wrapped up in an epic, heart-thudding, satisfying finale where good triumphs over evil and true love poignantly prevails.
You will likely enjoy the book if:
- You like lots of multidimensional characters with rough edges.
- You want your novels to have a really gritty side, including sex, drugs, and… what was that last thing?
- You have been hoping to discover that J.K.R. has a proper vocabulary of swear words.
- You are engaged by realistic, non-formulaic stories.
- You are comfortable with an unresolved ending and ambiguous messages.
This is not a magical showcase of Rowling’s impressive imagination. What it does highlight is her ability to draw characters with deft strokes, using their own thoughts, their actions, and the thoughts of other characters about them. The story practically studies the study of human nature.
Reading this book, I found I both liked and disliked almost every character presented. The majority of them I disliked at first impression, but grew to like as their strength and depth were revealed – and also their difficulties, which kindled my sympathy.
It’s like real life, for me at least: it’s not that I often actively dislike people, but I do tend to like people better once I get past initial impressions. Everyone is deeper, more prismatic, than they seem at first.
It’s also like real life in that how we are perceived not only differs with every person we know, it also does not match how we see ourselves. There will be people who like and admire us more than we realize, as well as people who really don’t like us, even if they don’t show it. Likewise, our actions – or lack thereof – sometimes affect people in ways we haven’t predicted or even considered. Sometimes we can think we are doing or saying one thing… and that thing is being regarded by someone else in an entirely different way.
(I have recently been reminded of this in my own life, in more ways than one. It is way easier than we realize to be and do things that become insincere or unkind by the time they reach someone else. That can be true even for people who prioritize niceness.)
We all keep secrets. We all do weird things sometimes without knowing quite why. We all have our vanities and insecurities. We all have motivations other people don’t guess at. We all occasionally have thoughts – about ourselves and others – that we’re glad no-one has to know about.
I think that’s what this book is about. (Not that it doesn’t have occasional heart-thudding moments, as well as poignant ones, and some very satisfying ones as well.)
So in my mind, the message isn’t actually ambiguous after all. It’s one of the oldest messages out there, told in a skilful and unexpected way: try not to judge people until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes. If you’re judging (or even if you’re not), you’re being judged… so take care. After all, you never know when you might die of an aneurysm.
I think Jo wrote this novel for herself. For a chance to do something completely different, relinquish the fantastical and write something outwardly mundane, but with insidious profundity.
And I’d like to think she would be tickled that I’ve figured all this out.
So, to sum up:
In case you haven’t already deducted, I’m with List B – I enjoyed it, found it fascinating, read it avidly. It doesn’t live in the cockles of my heart, the way Harry does, but I did kinda love some of the characters. And I’ll remember them for a long time.