The Casual Vacancy is Rowling’s first foray away from the Harry Potter books that secured her wealth and fame, so expectations are high: can she pull off a book without young wizards — and one aimed at a more discerning grownup audience?
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Accentuating the positive – and there may be no bigger rave out there – we should start with TIME’s very own Lev Grossman. Declaring his interest as “a known Harry Potter fan” in his opening paragraph, the novelist and TIME book critic goes on to state that he “had come under the spell of a great novel” — “a big, ambitious, brilliant, profane, funny, deeply upsetting and magnificently eloquent novel of contemporary England, rich with literary intelligence and entirely bereft of bulls—, and if it weren’t for Rowling’s stringent security measures it would or at least should have contended for the Booker Prize.”
Nearly as enthused is Henry Sutton in the Daily Mirror. “Perhaps the biggest surprise after months of secrecy and false leads is that the world’s best-known, best-loved and best-selling author is the real deal, more than equipped to tackle the grown-up world. The Casual Vacancy is a stunning, brilliant, outrageously gripping and entertaining evocation of British society today.” Allison Pearson gives the book a solid three-star review in the Daily Telegraph. The author of I Don’t Know How She Does It hails Rowling’s book as “sometimes funny, often startlingly well observed, and full of cruelty and despair. It feels as if the author has unleashed all the swearing, sex and vitriol that have been off-limits to her since Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was published in 1997.”
Many critics remain undecided as to whether the book is brilliant or baloney. Monica Hesse in the Washington Post is one, for example: “Much of the book I admired, even if I didn’t love. There were sentences I underlined for the sheer purpose of figuring out how English words could be combined so delightfully … There were characters that I liked, then disliked, then liked again with reservations … This book would be a little better if everyone were carrying wands.” And the Guardian‘s Theo Tait isn’t fully on board either, noting that “the book has a righteous social message, about responsibility for others, and a great big plot that runs like clockwork,” but “it leaves a slight sense of disappointment.”
Across the pond, the New York press (who, it could be argued, like to have the final word) have not been as complimentary. Ian Parker’s oft-cited “Mugglemarch” New Yorker profile of Rowling also contains his thoughts on the novel:
“The Casual Vacancy will certainly sell, and it may also be liked. There are many nice touches … 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.”
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Sherryl Connelly of the New York Daily News goes considerably further, calling it “dull … [characters] are all deluded in their own way with their own tales to tell. The problem is, not one of them is interesting or even particularly likeable… 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.” But the most poisonous pen probably belongs to Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times who not only echoes Connelly’s sentiments (“The real-life world she has limned in these pages is so willfully banal, so depressingly cliched that The Casual Vacancy is not only disappointing – it’s dull” writes Kakutani) but concludes that, “In fact, there is a vacancy deep in the heart of this novel.”
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So, should you read it? If you’re a Harry Potter fan who’s since grown up, or anyone curious about the year’s most hotly-debated serious fiction debut, it may be hard to resist – even if only to decide for yourself if it’s worth all the fuss.