For millions of fans who have been waiting five years for the next novel from J. K. Rowling, author of the beloved Harry Potter series, her first work for adults, “The Casual Vacancy,” will be a bit of a disappointment.
In a drastic departure from the world of magical face-offs between good and evil we’ve come to expect from her, Rowling has chosen to write about a conventional, albeit imagined, British suburb called Pagford. In this seemingly idyllic vestige of simpler times, generations of families live within walking distance and everyone knows everyone else’s business. So, naturally, the small town is thrown into a tizzy at the unexpected death of Barry Fairbrother, and the subsequent empty spot on the Parish Council this death occasions; the formal term for such an opening is the titular casual vacancy.
But surprise, surprise, Pagford isn’t quite as nice as its shiny veneer would suggest. Due to an extremely unpopular land sale in the 50s, its borders include an addiction clinic and a subdivision of government housing called the Fields, which the painfully polite Pagfordians simply want nothing to do with. Chairman of the Parish Council, Howard Mollison, (an obnoxiously pompous figure, complete with simpering wife/lackey), sees his opportunity to finally do away with those pesky blue collar families, now that his greatest political opponent, Fairbrother, is out of the picture. A general struggle between many supporting characters ensues for the open council seat, and we are introduced to about 15 separate but interlocking characters who partake in the drama, ranging from the spunky but crass Krystal, a teenage resident of the Fields, to Samantha Mollison, the chairman’s sarcastic, bored daughter-in-law, to Gavin Hughes, whose unbearable timidity has him vacillating for most of the novel between an unhappy relationship with his social worker girlfriend, and an unrequited crush on his recently deceased best friend’s widow.
One of the biggest problems with “The Casual Vacancy” is Rowling’s obvious desire to distance herself from her past writings. Pagford is rife with drug addicts, adulterers, angsty teenagers and general unrest, to a degree that’s just unrealistic. Parts of this suburban setting and fairly mundane plot line are reminiscent of Tom Perrotta (“Little Children”), America’s suburban writer-du-jour. But, honestly, Perrotta does this setting much better; he makes suburban malaise and domestic disputes believable. Sure, the all-too-perfect façade of suburbia hides lots of secrets, but this is extreme. Every house on the block is not concealing stolen computers or bags of heroin. Pagford is a weird cross between “Weeds” and Wisteria Lane, a kind of Bermuda Triangle for paranoia and creepy secrets.
At least we can imagine the coronary Aunt Petunia would be sure to have if surrounded by so much juicy gossip. Between the stifling storyline and plodding pace, it would be a relief to see the loathsome Dursleys again–at least we know they’re good for a laugh. All in all, though, it’s admirable to see Rowling writing again after setting such an impossibly high standard with the success of Harry Potter, we also know quite well how very capable her imagination is, and “The Casual Vacancy” definitely falls far short of the mark.