I admire and respect J.K. Rowling a great deal. It takes a lot of courage for a popular author to reinvent herself and come out with a book upturning what her readers expect. That’s what she did with The Casual Vacancy, her first published work of adult literary fiction.
The Casual Vacancy opens with the death of Pagford Parish Councilmember Barry Fairbrother, soon revealed to be the most genuinely kind, generous, well-meaning and non-self-absorbed person in town. He was also the deciding vote in a conflict that has torn the town apart: the stewardship of a nearby government housing project and the renewal of a lease for the local addiction clinic. A massive host of characters grapple with his death, their own personal demons, and the local controversy stirred by the special election to fill his council seat.
Rowling had to have known there would be hordes of readers hating The Casual Vacancy automatically just because it doesn’t have wizards or magic in it, and who would share their disappointment all over the internet.
That’s part of why I’m sad that I didn’t like it more. Because I picked up The Casual Vacancy prepared to read it as if it were the work of a first-time author, not the creator of Harry Potter. I was not going to bring the expectations that come with a fantasy young adult (YA) series to an adult work of literary fiction. But reading, I couldn’t stop thinking about what worked in Harry Potter and where those elements were missing from The Casual Vacancy – no, I wasn’t going to pitch a fit because Rowling dared to write a book in a different genre, but I was disappointed that she didn’t bring some of the very impressive writing skills that she’d displayed in Harry Potter to her adult fiction.
Here are four reasons why Harry Potter succeeded that have nothing to do with wizards — and why The Casual Vacancy didn’t live up to Rowling’s potential, even for a reader who wasn’t expecting wizards.