Vacancy First Reviews: “From Potter to Potty-Mouth”

The Day Before the Publication Bulletin:

(1) Joanne Rowling appears on ABC Television’s ‘Good Morning America’ program to discuss the new novel and her life experiences that inform the work.

The book marks a new literary direction for Rowling, who has made a name for herself with her wildly popular Harry Potter series. Completely leaving her signature realm of fantasy behind, the book is grounded in the real-world and incorporates popular teen culture. The Rihanna song, “Umbrella,” featuring Jay Z, plays a very prominent role in the story.

“The song’s just perfect for the book because of the rap at the beginning. There’s this rap that Jay Z does at the beginning of the song and it’s actually a very celebratory rap,” said Rowling. “It’s saying, ‘I’m shockproof ….I’m famous, I have money, let the Dow Jones fall, I’m OK,’ and it’s said in the book by a girl who doesn’t really understand the words and who is not OK. It’s very poignant to me that this girl doesn’t understand.”

Rowling has discussed her bouts with depression, even revealing that she felt suicidal in her early life. However, this is the first time she has spoken publically about her struggles as a teenager with an obsessive compulsive disorder. It was an experience, she says, that informed part of the story in her new book.

“We have an adult character in the book who has obsessive compulsive disorder [OCD],” she said, “These are things I know from the inside. … When I was in my teens I had issues with OCD.”

For Rowling, the anxiety disorder manifested itself as “compulsions” – “checking, double checking, triple checking” things, she said.

As for her depression, she says it has not been part of her life for “more than a decade,” attributing part of that to the tremendous success of Harry Potter.

(2) The New York Daily News breaks the news embargo (of sorts) to publish a highly critical review: ‘No Magic, but Full of Unforgettable Profanity.’ Excerpt after the jump.

She shows herself proficient at tossing out the F-word, and a long passage is devoted to an exploration of online porn by two teenage boys who get an eyeful. And its more than just magic wands and white owls — what the teens see is described in extremely graphic terms. Most of the language she uses to describe the naughty surfing is so dirty that we can’t repeat it in a family newspaper.

Rowling has said the worst anyone might say about “The Casual Vacancy,” is that it is “dreadful” — and that she “should have stuck to writing for kids.” Well, here goes . . . Sorry, J.K.

“The Casual Vacancy,” which one bookseller breathlessly predicted would be the biggest novel of the year, isn’t dreadful. It’s just dull. <snip>

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.”

Indeed, the spell has been broken.

(3) The Associated Press piece, ‘J. K. Rowling’s First Adult Novel Worth a Read,’ is relatively enthusiastic, if also disappointed by the “Potter to Potty-mouth” transition, as the Daily News has tagged what we called Rowling’s inevitable “Equus Moment” several months ago (see predictions 1 and 4 here):

This isn’t a book that’s easy to fall in love with, the way Harry Potter was with its charming, winning hero and his plucky friends, saving the world from evil with the help of a powerful spell or two.

Even with its moments of humor, it’s a hard story where some people just don’t get saved, because really, they never had a chance. It’s filled with often unlikeable people, some of whom cross the line into terrible. They’re all unhappy in one way or another, even if the only people who know that are themselves, if that. They can be judgmental, mean, petty and violent. Some are damaged beyond repair. Even the deceased official, in some ways the most positive, moral force in the story, is shown to have hurt his wife with his dedication to his cause that clearly came at her emotional expense.

But what could have been an unreadable story becomes something else in Rowling’s hands, thanks to her gift of being able to make her characters complex and really, just human.

Readers know these people. They’re familiar, with their moments of lashing out in anger or hoping against hope that this time things will be different. They’re people the reader feels something for, even it’s just pity, because they’re struggling, because life can be hard and sometimes there just aren’t any breaks, because even people who look like nothing but trouble can do something good. A number of her characters are teenagers, trying to figure out their places in the world, with all the emotional peaks and valleys that can bring.

That 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.

My take-away from these reviews and the profiles and interviews of this week? Casual Vacancy will not be as good as its admirers say it is or as bad as its critics claim.

I confess going into my first reading — probably delayed until Friday afternoon, alas — that I suspect, even fear, that the book will invite far too much authorbio-to-story dot-to-dot work among readers (which, sadly, even pathetically, the author seems to be encouraging in her discussions of it) and that it will be another attack — this one ‘realistic’ in the sense of ‘mundane and profane’ — on the Dursleys and other stand-ins for those Middle Class No-Nothings who were mean to her as a child and single mum.

I look forward to reading your first impressions below! Spoiler Alert for all those who have not read the book —


  1. Odd Sverre Hove says

    Yes, I think I agree. From what you quote, John, I guess the book is not as good as admirers say, and not as bad as critics say.

    But reading all the interviews is worth almost anything, adding new bits of information to the complex picture of Jo Rowling and her marvelously creative mind.

    Odd Sverre Hove
    Bergen, Norway

  2. Dolores Gordon-Smith says

    I’m up to page 102 or thereabouts and, although found it slow to start, feel it’s now picking up. JKRowling has said its like a Victorian novel (Trollope, Dickens, et al) in its spread and I can see what she means. However, I’m missing a central character whose POV we can follow. It’s not particularly plot driven but more characters in situations, which is a pity, in a way, as JKR does characters driven by plot really, really well. Still, hats off for trying something new – she couldn’t do another Harry and really wanted to write this one. However, I can’t help thinking the magic has gone away…

  3. Louise M. Freeman says

    I’m listening to it on audio book and am up to Chap 21. First impressions… it’s reminding me of a British village-size version of The Big Chill, complete with sex and cussing. I am enjoying it, but I miss the appealing characters of Harry Potter. I feel like this whole novel is packed with Dursleys, Malfoys, and Gaunts.

    I did giggle over the social worker’s “nightmares” about the “small boy locked in a cupboard for five days by a psychotic” relative and the fact his story “made national news.” Hat tip, would you say?

  4. Mausemarie says

    I’ve finished the book last night, also listening to it as an audio book. That probably made it easier not to abandon it after five pages, for frankly, the first chapters are anything but page turners. All in all I enjoyed it. Some scenes are very touching and I actually cried listening to drug addicted Terri’s story. I don’t mind the swearing and the sex. On the contrary, the porn scene is as ugly and dirty as the things you find browsing the web, so I rather liked it for its matter-of-factness. I also was impressed by the thorough post-modernism of the book. Not even Mary, the devoted widow, is allowed to be purely good, but displays narrow-mindedness when it comes to her “rival” Krystal Weedon.
    I don’t think the book is meant to be without any connection to the Harry Potter series. I mean BARRY Fairbrother??? What sort of a coincidence is that? Or is J.K. just teasing us? Barry is an adult, but he and Harry have undoubetedly at least one thing in common: their saving people thing. There are other links and hints: The word “alchemical” for instance is mentioned more than once, moreover there is an allution to a hermaphrodite. I too noticed the cupboard passage. Gaia and Andrew remind me of young Lily Evans and Severus Snape, although their stories aren’t completely alike. Still: Gaia beautiful, red haired and green eyed, Andrew on the other hand shy, tormented by his abusive father and obsessively in love with the girl. Sounds familiar? There also might be some resemblance between James and Fats, although maybe I’m going to far there. Anyway, the bullying theme and the disorientation of teenagers is an important theme in Harry Potter, and I’m glad J.K. has given it so much space in her new book.
    In my opinion, the magic hasn’t disappeared at all, it just assumed another shape. Anyone who truly understands the Harry Potter books can recognize it easily: I see it in Krystal’s love for her little brother, insecure Sukhvinder’s attempt to save the boy, Samantha’s change of heart at the end of the book and Colin’s reconciliation with his son, just to name a few examples.
    I’m very curious to read more comments about a possible connection to Harry Potter.

  5. At the end of the book I also found myself thinking about Snape. But, more in the sense that if he hadn’t had that LOVE for Lily he would never had a chance at redemption…which is different from some of the characters in this book who did not seem to have a space within their hearts for change or growth, which is possibly why their bodies expanded outward instead of their hearts.

    I have to admit that the depressing nature and foul language found in Casual Vacancy tempted me to quit the book, but I had faith in Jo that I just needed to make it to the end. And, in the end, I had teared-up several times and realized just how profound this book is. I believe Jo is telling us once again, don’t let your heart be casually vacant by willfully ignoring the depth and intracies of the people walking/driving/living next to you, but rather be formally and constantly aware that your choices have an affect on this world, for good or for bad.

    John, I look forward to hearing what you have to say about the alchemy in this book!


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