What happens in the story:
When Barry Fairbrother dies in his early forties, the town of Pagford is left in shock.
Pagford is, seemingly, an English idyll, with a cobbled market square and an ancient abbey, but what lies behind the pretty façade is a town at war.
Rich at war with poor, teenagers at war with their parents, wives at war with their husbands, teachers at war with their pupils…Pagford is not what it first seems.
And the empty seat left by Barry on the parish council soon becomes the catalyst for the biggest war the town has yet seen. Who will triumph in an election fraught with passion, duplicity, and unexpected revelations?
Ian Parker interviews J.K. Rowling about her new “adult” novel for the New Yorker:
“I thought I’d feel frightened at this point,” she said. “Not just because it’s been five years, and anything I wrote after Potter—anything—was going to receive a certain degree of attention that is not entirely welcome, if I’m honest. It’s not the place I’m happiest or most comfortable, shall we say. So, for the first few years of writing ‘The Casual Vacancy,’ I kept saying to myself, ‘You’re very lucky. You can pay your bills, you don’t have to publish it.’ And that was a very freeing thought, even though I knew bloody well, in my heart of hearts, that I was going to publish it. I knew that a writer generally writes to be read, unless you’re Salinger.” After all the fretting—“Christ, you’re going to have to go out there again”—she discovered that she was calm. “I think I’ve spent so long with the book—it is what I want it to be,” she said. “You think, Well, I did the best I could where I was with what I had.”
. . .
I read The Casual Vacancy, which is five hundred and twelve pages long, in the New York offices of Little, Brown, after signing a non-disclosure agreement whose first draft—later revised—had prohibited me from taking notes. (With this book, Rowling was hoping for a “more run-of-the-mill publishing experience,” but that hope goes only so far.) Within a few pages, it was clear that the novel had not been written for children: “The leathery skin of her upper cleavage radiated little cracks that no longer vanished when decompressed.” A little later, a lustful boy sits on a school bus “with an ache in his heart and in his balls.” But reviewers looking for echoes of the Harry Potter series will find them. The Casual Vacancy describes young people coming of age in a place divided by warring factions, and the deceased council member, Barry Fairbrother—who dies in the first chapter but remains the story’s moral center—had the same virtues, in his world, that Harry had in his: tolerance, constancy, a willingness to act.
. . .
The Casual Vacancy will certainly sell, and it may also be liked. There are many nice touches, including Rowling’s portrait of the social worker’s gutless boyfriend, who relishes how, in an argument with a lover, you can “obscure an emotional issue by appearing to seek precision.” The book’s political philosophy is generous, even if its analysis of class antagonisms is perhaps no more elaborate than that of Caddyshack. And, as the novel turns darker, toward a kind of Thomas Hardy finale, it hurtles along impressively. But whereas Rowling’s shepherding of readers was, in the Harry Potter series, an essential asset, in The Casual Vacancy her firm hand can feel constraining. She leaves little space for the peripheral or the ambiguous; hidden secrets are labelled as hidden secrets, and events are easy to predict. We seem to watch people move around Pagford as if they were on Harry’s magical parchment map of Hogwarts.
And a powerful and protected writer risks getting things wrong. One teen-ager bullies another on Facebook, anonymously and repeatedly, which could happen only if the victim refused to make use of the network’s privacy settings. Some sentences cause you to picture a Little, Brown editor starting to dial Rowling’s number, then slowly putting down the handset:
“There, in his poky office, Simon Price gazed covetously on a vacancy among the ranks of insiders to a place where cash was now trickling down onto an empty chair with no lap waiting to catch it.”
And, in a tellingly odd turn, three characters read unwelcome, but essentially accurate, judgments about themselves on a tiny local Web site, and all three disintegrate into fear and fury. The novel seems to treat extreme touchiness as a default psychological setting.
Read the entire J.K. Rowling profile: After “Harry Potter,” J. K. Rowling’s First Novel for Adults : The New Yorker.