Friday, October 5, 2012

A Reading Update: The Casual Vacancy

This is not a book to read when you're sick or all in one sitting. That is to say that I caught a cold just before it came out and was too fuzzy headed to really get into it when I started it. That concerned me a little. I mean, it's J.K. Rowling, I was supposed to instantly and inherently love this book right from the start.

Looking back, I think the cold was responsible for my inability to read more than 20 pages without having to stop and stare drowsily off into space for an hour, but I don't think it was responsible for my disinterest.

I don't mean disinterest in that I wasn't interested to read the book exactly. It's more that I was so disconcerted by the book at the start that I stepped back from it, refusing to get involved.

My first reaction to some of the characters descriptions was that J.K. Rowling was going to great lengths to show that The Casual Vacancy is not for children and perhaps more importantly, not Harry Potter. I didn't think I had any delusions about either of these facts going in but when I started I was still a little surprised by the brash and matter-of-fact way some of the issues were handled. It wasn't what I expected so I think I went in with more expectations than I realized.

This shows such a fascinating picture of an interconnected town. I've never lived in a town small enough where I felt like everyone knew everything so maybe this isn't really that accurate but I found it interesting. Everything that everyone does is instantly felt in vibrations through the town. Every little action has a wave of repercussions that the characters don't realize. I loved guessing how things would affect every other character (I'm admittedly, really bad at this), I was usually wrong.

I didn't find any of the characters particularly likable. There were some that I pitied, Sukhvinder, Tessa, and Kay. Some that instantly disliked, Howard, Shirley, Maureen, and Samantha. At first I was put off by this. How could there not be a single character that I well and truly liked instantly? Rowling didn't go to any lengths to make these people into ideas or character traits. They're realistic and terribly, terribly flawed. No one is happy. By the end I was left realizing that there aren't many people in real life that I well and truly like instantly (I'm a little prickly) so why should there be in this book? By the end my pity for Sukhvinder turned into an affection for her.

Sukhvinder is strong and affected by what the others do but by the end she'd seen that someone has to rise above it. She learns a little bit from almost every character that she has come in contact with. Strength from Krystal, passion from her mother, healthy disinterest from Gaia, how not to treat people from Fats. She goes through much of the book feeling overshadowed by her siblings but she's never really given much of a chance to show her own strength and shine until the end. When she does eclipse her siblings she doesn't like it. She did a good thing and then realized that the recognition that she got from it wasn't worth it. She'd only been doing what she was supposed to, as far as she was concerned.

I wanted to like Parminder but her dismissal of Sukhvinder frustrated me. She had the potential to be that one good character but then she had her incredibly real short comings. Then I had a disturbing moment where I realized that I had a lot in common with her. I am also prone to losing my temper. I wanted her to be so calm and collected in the council meeting when she had all that information on the clinic but she lost her temper. I've done the same thing. Gone into something I care about ready to be cool and just lost it when things get started. I also have the shameful tendency to not take into consideration the different paths that people something take. I fall back on the traditional, school, college, job, etc. Her disappoint in Sukhvinder not being as good as her siblings in school made me angry and then I realized that I've acted similarly (though not with a daughter) and I cringed.

But I think that made this book more powerful. It holds a up a mirror for people without making it look like that's what it's doing. There's something for everyone to identify with, if they're willing to look and many people, like the characters, aren't willing to do that.

The character I found the most irritating was Fats. I believe I am supposed to find him irritating so I'm okay with this. He wants everyone to be authentic and honest but has no idea how to manage it. Almost every one of his actions goes against his belief that people should show their true selves. He annoys me in much the same way that Holden Caulfield does. I didn't feel particularly bad for him at the end of the book.

I understand that no relationship is perfect. Every couple fights and no one is happy 100% of the time but each of the marriages in this book are barely functional. I found that, not startling, just a little confusing. The closest we get it Parminder and Vikram and not only was that one arranged but we didn't really get any insight into Vikram. I think it would have been possible to have a a couple that functioned even with the characters being so flawed. But everyone in this book is so intensely unhappy.

I do realize that I don't sound as if I am particularly fond of the book but that's not it. Admittedly, I'm not sure it's a book I'll revisit with any frequency but I read it with detachment. I didn't find myself all that invested in the story.

Which made my own tears at the end that much more startling.

That's right, I cried. Not a lot but as I was reading the last couple of pages there were a few quiet tears before I realized that they were there. That's such a powerful thing to be able to do. I've never doubted Rowling's ability to cause tears, there are a few moments in Harry Potter where I start crying before things even happen (when they do, I sob) but with The Casual Vacancy these tears caught me so off guard. It was the last couple of pages at the funeral that made the entire book for me.

Through everything that happens, all of the gossip, and scandal, and characters trying to destroy each other, all it takes is one person to have been positively impacted by someone else. One person to care enough to take action. Krystal (who, I also found it hard to like) had a charismatic strength that gave Sukhvinder strength and Sukhvinder drew on that when she most needed to.

There's a subtleness to this book that didn't hit me until I was finished. It was a well written, well understood book. Rowling's ability to write an ensemble is still astonishing. But I wasn't sure about it until the end and even then it wasn't until I started writing this post that the full impact of this book hit me. It's just as much about different kinds of people and the interactions between them as it is about small town life. It's heartbreaking without being opening heartbreaking. It's raw circumstance and action. It's every bit about impulsiveness and growth and forgetting yourself, as it is about repression, society, and structure.

Overall I give The Casual Vacancy a Massively Epic rating.

I recommend everyone (age appropriately) read this and stick with it even if you're skeptical at first. The payoff comes at the very end and it makes any potential struggle far worth it.

What did you ducks thing of J.K. Rowling's "adult" (I don't believe Harry Potter is strictly kids)  debut? Love it? Hate it? Mixed feelings?

I know I was supposed to be reading Unspoken but then I couldn't finish it before this came out so...Unspoken now!


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