J.K. Rowling's 'Casual Vacancy': What the Critics Are Saying About Her First Post-Harry Potter Book

J.K. Rowling The Casual Vacancy Cover - P 2012

J.K. Rowling The Casual Vacancy Cover - P 2012

Reviewers are calling the adult novel, which hits bookstores Thursday, everything from heartbreaking, intelligent and funny to dull and predictable.

J.K. Rowling's first post-Harry Potter book is set to hit bookstores Thursday.

Two million hardcover copies of The Casual Vacancy, which also marks Rowling's first novel for adults, will be available in U.S. bookstores, in addition to a digital edition. It also will be released Thursday in the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Germany.

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Casual Vacancy is set in the seemingly idyllic town of Pagford, England, whose countryside setting is, in actuality, just a facade. The story kicks off with the unexpected death of a member of the parish council, with the ensuing election sparking a war among the town's residents.

The book might surprise some readers expecting another Potter novel.

Press materials have described the tome as "blackly comic," while The New Yorker called the description of one family "ostentatiously unremitting: drugs, prostitution, the stink of diapers." In addition, many of the characters (teens especially) are troubled, and one mother is a heroin addict.

The 512-page novel also includes the phrases “miraculously unguarded vagina” and "with an ache in his heart and in his balls."

Casual Vacancy is already the No. 1 book on Amazon and has consistently been in the top 100 since it was announced in February. The book, from Little, Brown & Co., will retail for $35 (the digital version costs $17.99)

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So what do the critics have to say about Rowling's novel? Below are excerpts from several reviews:

"With J. K. Rowling’s new novel, “The Casual Vacancy,” we are firmly in Muggle-land — about as far from the enchanted world of Harry Potter as we can get. There is no magic in this book — in terms of wizarding or in terms of narrative sorcery. Instead, this novel for adults is filled with a variety of people like Harry’s aunt and uncle, Petunia and Vernon Dursley: self-absorbed, small-minded, snobbish and judgmental folks, whose stories neither engage nor transport us." -- Michiko Kakutani, "Darkness and Death, No Magic to Help," in The New York Times

The Casual Vacancy will certainly sell, and it may also be liked. There are many nice touches, including Rowling’s portrait of the social worker’s gutless boyfriend, who relishes how, in an argument with a lover, you can 'obscure an emotional issue by appearing to seek precision.' The book’s political philosophy is generous, even if its analysis of class antagonisms is perhaps no more elaborate than that of Caddyshack. And, as the novel turns darker, toward a kind of Thomas Hardy finale, it hurtles along impressively. But whereas Rowling’s shepherding of readers was, in the Harry Potter series, an essential asset, in The Casual Vacancy her firm hand can feel constraining. She leaves little space for the peripheral or the ambiguous; hidden secrets are labeled as hidden secrets, and events are easy to predict. We seem to watch people move around Pagford as if they were on Harry’s magical parchment map of Hogwarts." -- Ian Parker of The New Yorker

"Is this a failure of the imagination? Maybe. Rowling clearly knows how to create a universe that's compelling, consuming even, but Pagford is no such place. Rather, it is little more than a backdrop, a stage set, its lack of depth an emblem of Rowling's inability to engage us, to invest us sufficiently in her characters, young or otherwise, to reckon with the contrivances of her fictional world." -- David Ulin of the Los Angeles Times.

"It quickly becomes clear that this is not the book we might have been expecting. Recently arrived social worker Kay’s first visit to a drug-addict mother of two at her home in the Fields brings us into the very heart of the world that the hawks on the parish council would like to simply wish away. It is a heart-in-the-mouth passage, taut with dread, invoking in the reader a vivid mirror of Kay’s own fear, revulsion, anger, compassion and sorrow. ... There is villainy, from domestic violence to sexual abuse, including a rape scene that is most shocking in its banality for both parties. Neither the victims nor their assailants expect justice from any external agency, and nor should the reader: There are few resolutions, and no promises of wish-fulfillment. This is undoubtedly where the book takes its greatest risks. One marvels at the skill with which Rowling weaves such vivid characters in and out of each other’s lives, rendering them so complex and viscerally believable that one finds oneself caring for the worst of them. However, upon hearing the cries of so many souls in pain, the more sensitive reader might begin to crave a leavening of hope, or to fear that Rowling’s own cry is one of despair." -- Christopher Brookmyre of the U.K.'s Telegraph

"So look, here's the thing: This. Is. Not. A. Children's. Book. If you're looking for what made Harry Potter magical - Wizards! Spells! Flying Broomsticks! -- you're not going to find it. If you're looking for what makes J.K. Rowling magical -- emotion, heart -- you will. ... [The] ability to bring her characters to their emotional life was a hallmark of the Harry Potter series -- it didn't become a global phenomenon just because it was an exciting adventure, but because there was a real heart to it, characters who had both strengths and weaknesses, who struggled with their choices. That's what makes this book worth it, despite a slow start and sometimes too much of the descriptions and adjectives that added life to Harry Potter but at times tend to bog Rowling down here. That's what makes the book's ending scenes so heartbreaking -- turning the page seems unbearable, but not as much as putting down the book would be." -- Deepti Hajela of the Associated Press

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"[The Casual Vacancy] contains swearwords, rape, racism, pornography, self-harm, suicide, domestic violence, heroin and marijuana use, a character who contemplates child abuse, and graphic descriptions of sex.But none of it is gratuitous. Focusing on these elements makes this mostly tame book sound on a par with "Trainspotting" or "A Clockwork Orange." It's not. Instead, "The Casual Vacancy" is a generally well-written book whose central theme is responsibility for those less fortunate, all the time imbued with ever-present British themes of class and notions of propriety." -- Andrew Losowsky, "'The Casual Vacancy' Review: JK Rowling's Long-Awaited New Book" in Huffington Post.

The Casual Vacancy, which one bookseller breathlessly predicted would be the biggest novel of the year, isn’t dreadful. It’s just dull. ... [The town-citizen characters] are all deluded in their own way with their own tales to tell. The problem is, not one of them is interesting or even particularly likeable. Collectively, it’s all too easy to turn the page on them. It’s the teenagers then who bear the burden of making us care. And while Rowling more successfully builds drama on this front, the problem is she hasn’t much new to add to the annals of adolescent strife. Ditto on drug-infested poverty. We’ve read it before, darker, bleaker and better. Rowling’s strength was never her prose. It was her ability to create unforgettable characters and weave stories that held us captive. The magic simply isn’t there in The Casual Vacancy.” -- Sherryl Connelly of the New York Daily News

"The Casual Vacancy is no masterpiece, but it's not bad at all: intelligent, workmanlike, and often funny. I could imagine it doing well without any association to the Rowling brand, perhaps creeping into the Richard and Judy Book Club, or being made into a three-part TV serial. The fanbase may find it a bit sour, as it lacks the Harry Potter books' warmth and charm; all the characters are fairly horrible or suicidally miserable or dead. But the worst you could say about it, really, is that it doesn't deserve the media frenzy surrounding it. And who nowadays thinks that merit and publicity have anything do with each other?" -- Theo Tait of the U.K.'s Guardian