A Casual Vacancy of Morals, Wit, and Charm

The first thing I heard about J. K. Rowling’s CASUAL VACANCY was that it would be a humorous book about a small town election. That sounded like it could be fun, but I wasn’t particularly interested. Then, I heard that it had one or two darker elements.


I decided I would wait to read it until I knew that someone I trusted liked it. Wish I had.

That caught my fancy. A light, airy book with a core of something more serious sounded very promising.


I saw the book in the bookstore and flipped through it, reading a few passages. They seemed promising. I remembered how much I liked her characters.


Then, Saturday, I woke up with a driving desire to read the book—out of nowhere. This was particularly odd as I have very little reading time, but happened to have some this weekend. I went to the library and put the book on hold. I was number 1064.

John took pity on me and bought me a copy at the bookstore for 40% off with a gift card my mother had given him.


I sat down with great delight and dived in. The writing was excellent. The insights into character really impressed me. Some even reminded me of my favorite writer of all, Tolstoy. I also really liked the slow, clever way that the plot unfolded—taking time to reveal what was really up, with unrelated comments in various scenes suddenly coming together to form a whole.


It was, therefore, with some startlement that I realized that I didn’t like any of the characters. (Well, not true. I liked two of them—a slutty, foul-mouthed teenager from the projects, and the guy who dies in the first scene. But, of course, he’s dead.)


Now, I’m going to repeat this. I didn’t really like any of the characters. I didn’t. I like everybody. Really. Not just saying that. I actually do. People all seem interesting to me. If you want me to dislike someone, you have to work REALLY hard.


And I didn’t particularly like…ALL OF THEM.

That had to be deliberate.

As a writer, I am a big believer in the theory that all writing is words on a page. No matter what effect a book has on you when you read it, it was particular words that created the image that evoked that effect. If you think, you should be able to figure out which words did it.


So, I spent the better part of a day fascinated with the question of: how is she doing it? How is she making it so that I didn’t care for them?


Eventually, I figured it out:


They lack sympathy. By which I mean—the characters lack sympathy for each other.


Almost every character is introduced from the point of view of someone who doesn’t like them—so you start with a basically negative take. Then, we see the character’s point of view and start to like them. Then, that character comes upon someone else, we kind of have started to like…and all their thoughts about that person are petty and unpleasant. Suddenly, we find ourselves disliking both of them more.


At first, I was okay with this. I thought: she’s clever. She’s setting us up to see the bad, then something—maybe the legacy of the dead guy, will turn things around, and it will all become good. It will be better in its goodness because of the depth of the bad.

That was before I read that it was a tragedy.


About halfway through, I jumped to the end and read the end. There was no happy solution. It was a tragedy…though a few characters improve their lot.  This was a huge blow.


Now, I am rethinking the book. I may go back and read a bit more. There are a few character’s whose story line I’d like to finish, but—for the most part—it was really hard to care.


Just a little bit of sympathy in the characters for each other—a hint of good among the unrelenting snideness and negativity—would have gone a LONG way to making the book really good.


I kept thinking of Filch the caretaker in Harry Potter. He’s pretty vile…but his love for his cat, Mrs. Norris brings out a human side that makes him a vivid character, and one for whom I have sympathy. Somehow, in this book, whenever she did something like that, she undercut it with some new unpleasant insight in the next chapter.


The story is supposed to be humorous…but the humor was entirely lost on me. Normally, I can see the humor in nearly anything. (I pride myself on being easily amused.) I usually see humor even in things that I don’t care for. There are scenes where I look at it and I imagine that perhaps Rowlings thought the scene was funny when she wrote it…and yet, somehow, the humor is not getting across to me. (I did read a review of someone who liked the book who listened to the audio version. Maybe the actor who read it brought out the humor more.)