10 Things You Need to Know Before You Read The Casual Vacancy

As I’m writing this post there are still over 700 folks waiting to read J.K. Rowling’s novel The Casual Vacancy in all the formats we could purchase [click here to learn why we don’t have the e-book]. Because there is almost nothing worse than waiting a very long time for a book that disappoints, today’s post serves as a guide to whether or not you might like it. No spoilers here: simply indicators that will tell you whether or not to hang in there with the wait, or graciously let go and make the line a little less long for everyone else.

Ready? Okay.

1. This novel is nothing like Harry Potter, and you need to be at peace with that. If you are open to a beloved author doing something completely different with style and theme, hang in there. If, however, you are secretly holding out hopes that The Casual Vacancy will be anything like the adventures of the boy wizard and his pals, you are just going to wind up chucking the book across the room. And since it clocks in at 503 pages, you might hurt somebody, or someone. Possibly a kitten. Please, think of the kittens.

2. Politics and class warfare permeate the plot. This should heavily influence your decision, especially if you read to escape from the 24/7 News Cycle of Gloom and are still recovering from the loud, screamy info-barrage of the recent presidential election. Test yourself with this summary: when a local councilman dies, the small town he lives in drives itself bonkers during the search for his replacement. If that plot description turned you green at the gills, it’s time to let go.

3. There are a lot of characters to remember. Again, this is not necessarily a bad thing–just a litmus test for whether you should hang in there or not. Some people love novels with tons of subplots and complex character interactions. Others don’t. If you’d rather focus on the adventures of one engaging hero/ine, this might not be the book for you. Conversely, if you love village gossip and elaborate machinations, hang in there.

4. Many of those characters are not very nice. Again, this is a personal preference. Many people read fiction to understand and engage with reality better. Others read fiction to escape. I can guarantee you that most of the characters in The Casual Vacancy are not folks that you’d want to hang out with in real life. However, they are fascinating, troubled mirror images of the kinds of people we live and work with every day. Do you want more or less of this dynamic in your life? Choose accordingly.

5. Less than a dozen people are on hold for the Playaway edition of the novel. If you are determined to read this book, and you’re on hold for the audiobook, why not consider transferring your hold to the Playaway version? Playaways are delightfully compact MP3 players that come pre-loaded with your book of choice. Just add your own headphones and a AAA battery, and you’re golden. Plus, you can then read the book on the bus, or during your daily walk / run, without lugging a lot of text around. Interested? Ask a library worker for more details.

Please, think of the literate kittens.
Originally seen on thatcutekitten.com

Still here? Good for you. The Casual Vacancy is an intriguing novel about contemporary social issues, in the vein of Jodi Picoult (minus the melodrama, plus a few style points) or Chris Bohjalian (minus a little formality), and is definitely worth waiting for. Now what you need to know is what you could be reading in the meantime. Here are five suggestions:

1. The Year of the Gadfly, Jennifer Miller. A privileged, yet troubled, teenager stumbles upon generations of secrets at her new school. Tonewise, this will give you a good sense of what reading The Casual Vacancy is like; it also has its share of unsympathetic characters and small-town viciousness, albeit in American style.

2.Still Life, Louise Penny. Three Pines is a lot quieter than Pagford, but the dynamics and culture of small-town life play  an important role in both books, making this a good pick for those intrigued by this kind of setting. First in a series, Still Life explores how a town comes apart, then back together, after a murder.

3. Trainspotting, Irvine Welsh. Wait, what? The poverty and desperation some of Rowling’s characters experience looms larger than life in this iconic tale of the down, out, and drugged-up in Edinburgh. Grittier than The Casual Vacancy, to be sure, but excellent preparation for that novel’s less savory elements (do not substitute the movie, unless you’re really ready to take a walk on the wild side).

4.  The Life and Loves of a She-Devil, Fay Weldon. If you can’t wait to see how Rowling’s characters outwit each other in small-town politics, you might enjoy reading–or perhaps revisiting–this tale of a woman wronged who achieves revenge through a series of carefully orchestrated plots. Ruth’s elaborate scheme to get back at her cheating husband, Bobbo, mirrors on a smaller scale the Pagford citizens’ attempts to get elected to the parish council.

5. The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, Rachel Joyce. This, too, was an extremely popular novel this year, and may be difficult to get a hold of. The most “contemporary British” of my picks, however, is also worth hanging around for (the lines are considerably shorter, too). When Harold receives word that a former co-worker of his is dying, he decides to walk to her hospital to pay her a visit. Which is very sweet, except that her hospital is 627 miles away!  Closest in characterization and setting to The Casual Vacancy, but with a softer edge to it (and, arguably, a better ending).

Bonus suggestion:  Peyton Place, Grace Metalious. 350+ pages into The Casual Vacancy, and just after a very small-town shocking-hilarious thing happened at a council meeting, it dawned on me: Rowling’s written the British Peyton Place, an uncomfortable novel that exposes the seamy underbelly of people’s secrets and lies, as well as the propensity of folks to gossip about their neighbors while hiding their own foibles. Also, unpleasant things happen to children and teens.

Hopefully you now have enough information to answer that burning question, “Should I stay on the waiting list, or should I go?” Have you read The Casual Vacancy yet? Are you planning to? What would you recommend for other readers patiently waiting in line, and why?

–Leigh Anne


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16 responses to “10 Things You Need to Know Before You Read The Casual Vacancy

  1. I read it pretty much when it came out (my review – http://ofmusingsandwonderings.wordpress.com/2012/10/14/book-review-the-casual-vacancy-j-k-rowling/) and to be honest, I just wasn’t impressed. I do agree with all the points above, especially 4 – not that I need a ‘nice’ character to read about, but someone I can actually root for – whether they’re nice or not – would have been good.
    Yet I’ll still pick up her next book. Fingers crossed it’s better than The Casual Vacancy.

    • Thank you so much for your comment, and for sharing your review – I think you make a great point about being able to root for the characters – that is an important appeal factor for many readers.

      I have to confess, there was one character in particular I was rooting for, very hard. Let’s just say I ended up needing a box of Kleenex, at the end of her story arc….

      Leigh Anne

  2. Don

    Life and Loves of a She-Devil … one of the best revenge novels … ever.

  3. Sarah Louise

    I was one of the early folks on the list for this one and I returned it pretty quickly, not even half read. I loved hearing JK talk about this book on the talk shows, but yeah. And I have a dear friend who is all about escape (and Harry Potter) and she HATED this book. (Not that her opinion deterred me from trying it on my own…)


    • Sarah Louise, I’m sorry it wasn’t the book for you, but glad you felt you could give it back – life is too short to spend time with a book that isn’t pleasing you! Casual Vacancy is the perfect case study for readers’ advisory appeal factors – not every book is for everybody…

      Thanks for reading and commenting!

      Leigh Anne

  4. Tim

    Casual Vacancy was the first book I’ve quit in probably half a decade. :( I gave up 50 pages in after what felt like the hundredth random character introduction, endless meaningless crassness (and I’m no prude at all! Just have remotely some reason for it!), and zero appeal. Sad times.

    • I’m sorry you didn’t like it, and glad you were able to put it down with no regrets – it is definitely not a book for everybody. There is an overall meaning and pattern to the crassness (and the characters), but nobody should have to stick with it if it’s not working for them.

  5. knwaites

    I’m still trying to decide if I want to read it, and now I’m not really sure. If there isn’t a ridiculously long wait, I’ll probably read it just to see if I like it, but it doesn’t really sound like my kind of book. Thanks for the info, though!

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