Hello you Blogstalking Bookworms! Thank you to everyone who clicked on over here from Lauren at Filing Jointly… Finally. It is TIME. Time to discuss J.K. Rowling’s new book (for grown-ups!) The Casual Vacancy. You remember the drill right? I’m going to throw some discussion questions out in bold so we can be all official and such. I must admit there was a small (okay maybe significant) part of me that was hoping this would turn into Harry Potter: The Adult Years, but alas, it was not meant to be. Did anybody else harbor this same secret wish? Gratuitous photo time:
Now that that’s out of the way, I’d like to mention that I made a conscious effort to separate my expectations from Harry Potter. Everyone deserves a chance to re-invent themselves, even bazillionaire authors who have brought joy to millions. I’m a little bit of an anglophile. I love the accents, I love the history, I love the chic lit (Bridget Jones is my Everywoman.) The fact that The Casual Vacancy was a slice of English life was right up my alley. Why does everything sound better British? Examples of my delight displayed in The Casual Vacancy:
1. “Dessert” is referred to on more than one occasion as “pudding.” (You can’t have any pudding if you don’t eat your meat!)
2. “Busing tables” is referred to as “mopping tables.” It actually makes more sense because part of busing tables is wiping them down, like you would with a MOP on a FLOOR.
3. “People Carrier” means Mini Van! How cute is that?! It makes me think of the People Mover at Disney World, which is all kinds of wonderful when your feet hurt from traipsing around the park (or maniacally chasing the characters) all day.
The Casual Vacancy begins with the tragic death of Barry Fairbrother. Barry was an all around good dude. He came from humble beginnings to become a local politician and family man. He coached the high school girl’s rowing team and championed the underprivileged (even at the expense of his relationship with his wife, seeing as he spent their last anniversary writing a puff piece for the newspaper on a local girl from his old neighborhood.) As he and his wife walk from their car to the restaurant where they’ll be having dinner, Barry suffers a brain aneurysm and dies, right there in the “car park.” (Sounds so much more sophisticated than “parking lot” right?!)
Barry’s death sends shock waves through the community. His friends and allies are devastated, while his former enemies on the town council begin plotting how best to replace Barry to advance their cause. What exactly is the cause that’s dividing up the little hamlet of Pagford?
There is a little strip of land under Pagford’s jurisdiction known as The Fields. The Fields is home to a housing project. It houses a pretty rough crowd, as housing projects are wont to do. Crack whores, drug pushers, theft rings, negligent parents- all sorts of unsavory characters make their homes in The Fields. The old guard of Pagford wants nothing to do with it. Like any place though, The Fields aren’t entirely bad. Barry Fairbrother was a heck of a guy and he came from The Fields. Thus, the division.
The town council is divided pretty much 50/50 on The Fields, but with Barry’s death, Howard Mollison intends to install his son Miles in the vacant councilor’s seat to finally rid Pagford of The Fields. Barry’s old allies catch wind of Howard’s plans and seek to find an electable alternative to keep the balance of power in check. After all, the people of The Fields benefit from Pagford’s school system- who knows how many Barry Fairbrothers could be growing up in squalor only to become contributing members of society, right?
While all this political maneuvering is going on, the families of the “upstanding” town of Pagford are floundering. There is a veritable teen rebellion that takes place anonymously online under the guise of “The Ghost of Barry Fairbrother.” The children turn on their parents. In the case of Simon Price, that’s pretty well justified. He’s an abusive jerk who only wants to win the council seat to facilitate his dealings in illegal goods. Andrew sees the anonymous post as the only way to prevent his father from causing even more trouble. Seriously, how much did all of you want to punch Simon?
Parminder Jawanda is already on the town council, but having been one of Barry’s closest allies, she’s a target of derision. She isn’t rotten to the core, but she has a strained relationship with her bullied self-harming daughter Sukhvinder and the poor girl lashes out. Sukhvinder and her mom have issues because unlike the other two Jawanda children, Sukhvinder is awkward and a middling student. I don’t think Parminder is a terrible mother, but she certainly doesn’t realize what an effect her indifference has on her daughter. How did you feel about Parminder? Do you think I’m cutting her too much slack?
Poor Colin Walls feels the need to run for office to honor his good friend Barry. Colin suffers from OCD with bad thoughts. He’s mentally ill and completely terrified that he’ll accidentally molest a child. It sounds weird, but this disorder was covered on one of those therapy shows. It’s a thing (you know, because TV can’t lie. But for real, I’m pretty sure this disorder is legit.) Colin’s son is a complete jerk. Stuart “Fats” Walls has CLEARLY read The Fountainhead too many times. (Irony alert! “Fats” isn’t fat.) He is the epitome of teen douchebaggery. He’s a bully not only to his peers (especially Sukhvinder!), but to Colin as well. How much did you want to punch Fats?!
The undisputed queen of this epic tale of class warfare and dysfunctional families is one Krystal Weedon. She is such a tragic figure. Krystal grew up in The Fields. To say she’s rough around the edges is an understatement. Her mother is a heroin addict. She’s been exposed to rapists and drug dealers and her screwed up 16 year old psyche is the most stable influence in her 3 year old brother’s life. The only “out” she can see for herself is to get pregnant so she can get her own government issue apartment and benefits. She plans to use this opportunity to take her brother out from under the influence of their hot mess of a mother. Krystal serves as the embodiment of The Fields, and is a lightening rod on both sides of the Pagford debate. To some, she’s the underdog who has potential to rise above her circumstances. To others, she’s the loose cannon who punched the teeth out of one of the Mollison girls. How did you feel about Krystal? Sinner? Saint? Or something in between?
There is just SO MUCH going on in this book. When I first started reading I actually thought JK Rowling might be rebelling a little bit from her wholesome image because there were a lot of teen boy erections going on. That really has nothing to do with anything, it’s just an observation. Seriously though, this book is chock full of controversy. I think Rowling does a good job of portraying both sides of the class warfare argument. Everyone wants to help the needy, but nobody wants to live next door to the crack house, you know? Even the Walls family, who are pro-Fields freak out when they find out Fats has been boinking Krystal.
For a small town, this book has a huge cast of characters. The bits I’ve discussed really only scratch the surface. I mean, what about Howard and his tawdry affair? Samantha and her cougar crush on the boy band? Gavin and his stunted relationship capability? Kay, the overworked social worker with self esteem issues? Ruth and her refusal to leave Simon despite the fact that he occasionally beats up her and the children? Gaia’s teen angst? Mary and her grief? Miles and his weird dependence on his parents? And what exactly made Vikram Jawanda so dreamy? Who was your favorite character? Whose baggage do you most relate to?
I really enjoyed this book. I liked that it portrayed people as they ACTUALLY are- flawed with bits of good and bad floating around together. There often weren’t clear heroes and villains (okay, Simon was clearly a villain but even evil Fats showed some redemptive qualities at the bitter end.) I LOVED the sheer British-ness of it all! Overall, I’ve got to hand it to Rowling. Is it Harry Potter? Heck no. Is it good anyway? Absolutely. Well done, Ms. Rowling! What were your opinions on this book? Did you love it? Hate it? Tell us about it!
Thanks for participating in this month’s Blogstalker Book Club! Lauren and I discussed choosing a lighter book (as in, something that isn’t crushingly depressing) for December. We’ve decided to tackle Rachel Dratch’s memoir Girl Walks Into A Bar…: Comedy Calamities, Dating Disasters, and a Midlife Miracle. Join us?