“The Casual Vacancy,” the latest book from famed “Harry Potter” author J.K. Rowling, was released on Thursday. The novel, which marks Rowling’s first foray into adult fiction, examines human adversity rather than the whimsical world of wizardry.
“The Casual Vacancy” centers on the residents of Pagford, a modest English town. Following the death of Barry Fairbrother, one of the town’s politicians, Pagford’s inhabitants begin to quarrel over who will take his place. As the story progresses, it becomes increasingly difficult for the townspeople to peacefully coexist.
So far, Rowling’s latest has earned mixed reviews. Several top book critics are praising the author for bravely straying from the genre that made her a billionaire. Yet some have found fault with the 500-page work for being predictable and somewhat tedious.
Entertainment Weekly’s Rob Brunner gives the book a grade of B- and calls it “overlong but often entertaining.” According to Brunner, Rowling may have tried a little too hard to separate herself from the “Harry Potter” franchise.
“Rowling seems determined to distance herself from the innocent pleasures of wizards and Quidditch, and ‘The Casual Vacancy’ piles on the unpleasantness -- not just smack and tawdry sex, but also rape, child abuse, self-mutilation, suicide, pedophilia and mental illness,” says Brunner. “It’s all just too much: When the novel finally arrives at its predictable and heavy-handed ending, what started as a lively comedy of manners has turned into an overwrought slog.”
Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times understands why Rowling is anxious to move away from children’s literature but believes that “The Casual Vacancy” falls flat.
“It’s easy to understand why Ms. Rowling wanted to try something totally different after spending a decade and a half inventing and complicating the fantasy world that Harry and company inhabited, and one can only admire her gumption in facing up to the overwhelming expectations created by the global phenomenon that was ‘Harry Potter,’” says Kakutani. “Unfortunately, the real-life world she has limned in these pages is so willfully banal, so depressingly clichéd that ‘The Casual Vacancy’ is not only disappointing, it’s dull.”
By contrast, Lev Groosman of Time magazine praises the book for offering an authentic representation of human nature. He also compares Rowling’s newfound literary voice to that of “Atonement” author Ian McEwan.
“It was not what I was expecting,” says Groosman. “It’s a big, ambitious, brilliant, profane, funny, deeply upsetting and magnificently eloquent novel of contemporary England, rich with literary intelligence and entirely bereft of [expletive]. ... This is a deeply moving book by somebody who understands both human beings and novels very, very deeply. It’s as if Rowling were an animagus, except that, instead of turning into a stag or a dog or whatever, she transformed into Ian McEwan.”
Monica Hesse of the Washington Post praises Rowling’s eloquent prose and exceptionally developed characters but notes that “The Casual Vacancy” cannot compete with the imaginative vision that is “Harry Potter.”
“Much of the book I admired, even if I didn’t love. There were sentences I underlined for the sheer purpose of figuring out how English words could be combined so delightfully,” Hesse says. “There were incidents I immediately reread, because the developments were surprising or genuinely moving. There were characters that I liked, then disliked, then liked again with reservations.
“But throughout ‘The Casual Vacancy,’ I could not stop from having one overarching thought, which the devoted fan in me loathes to share since I’m certain it’s the one Rowling is most loath to hear: This book would be a little better if everyone were carrying wands.”
"Harry Potter and the Scorer's Stone" was released in 1997 and sparked a global phenomenon that led to six follow-up books. The books have sold a whopping 450 million copies worldwide. Each has been adapted for the screen, and the films have earned a combined $8 billion globally. Rowling is the first person in history to become a billionaire from writing books.