What Everyone's Saying About 'The Casual Vacancy'

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Everybody’s got an opinion about J.K. Rowling’s first novel for adults. With the embargo on reviews now lifted, the book is drawing wildly polarized responses. Some outlets leaked early reviews, but most adhered to the embargo, waiting until this morning to publish their take. Now that the floodgates are open, here’s what everyone’s saying:

The New York Times‘ Michiko Kakutani was bored by it. With a pen in one hand and a hatchet in the other, she writes, “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.” It’s refreshing to see “limn” reappear in a Kakutani review. For a while there it seemed like she’d forsaken her favorite verb. [The New York Times]

The Los Angeles Times‘ David Ulin wishes Rowling had played to her strengths by focussing on the young characters, which he finds far more compelling than the dreary adults: “When The Casual Vacancy focuses on these teenagers and their interactions (with one another, with their parents, with the petty hypocrisies of adult society), it takes on if not an urgency then a momentum of a kind. The problem is that they are too infrequently at the center of this novel.” [Los Angeles Times]

But one has to wonder if The Casual Vacancy‘s distinctly British purview is what’s putting American critics off. Scottish crime novelist Christopher Brookmyre found Rowling’s observations of small-town England full of clever political satire. He writes in The Telegraph, “J.K. Rowling’s first novel ‘for adults’ disguises its own ambitions by posing as a storm-in-a-teacup tale of small-town rural folk, but instead of gently carving out a slice of life, it reveals in unflinching detail the fractures beneath the surface of modern Britain.” [The Telegraph]

The Guardian’s Theo Tait writes that even with all its sex, drug-taking and swearing, the novel is ultimately a bit bland: “The Casual Vacancy is a solid, traditional and determinedly unadventurous English novel … The plot is often predictable; it requires a large helping of artificial contrivance; and it lurches into melodrama in the final act. The rules probably require this, and it all rattles along nicely enough, but it leaves a slight sense of disappointment.” [The Guardian]

The negative reviews will likely get all the attention, but some critics loved it. Time‘s Lev Grossman says the book transported him past all the chatter surrounding it: “It was not what I was expecting. 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 bullshit, and if it weren’t for Rowling’s stringent security measures it would or at least should have contended for the Booker Prize.” [Time]

For those of you who want a play-by-play of how critics review a book (and can stomach spoilers), The Wall Street Journal‘s C.J. Farley is live-blogging his reading of the book. In the first few pages, the reader learns the meaning of that strange title. Farley writes, “It seems that ‘a casual vacancy’ is some sort of procedural term used in local government when a ‘local councillor’ fails to accept his office, resigns, or dies.” He’s about 150 pages in so far. [The Wall Street Journal]

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