A Read Along: Final Thoughts on The Casual Vacancy by JK Rowling

The Read Along of JK Rowling's The Casual Vacancy, hosted by Brenna at Literary Musings and myself, ends today. Well, perhaps yesterday or before, so that you've had the opportunity to compose a little post of all the things swimming in your head.

Short overview of what you'll find: An authoritative member of the Parish Council in the town of Pagford, Barry Fairbrother, drops dead, quite unexpectedly, while celebrating his anniversary with his wife. The townspeople, in shock, scramble to fill his seat so that his efforts of keeping The Fields apart of Pagford are overruled.

As I've stated before, there are many things I probably miss due to the fact that I don't really have a background in literary criticism or literary studies, aside from the fact that I've always enjoyed reading. So instead of offering a post about what I thought Rowling was really trying to convey with this novel, I'll focus more on the elements that made the novel interesting and enjoyable to me.

If I could sum up what feelings I left with after completing: The novel is a hotbed of emotion and turmoil.

Please keep in mind that SPOILERS are fair game below...

The characters each carry a burden that somehow manifests itself in every facet of their lives. Many of them are suffering, deeply, in contrast to the seemingly endless calm that the beautiful little English village of Pagford should provide. Some feel trapped, others lost, and almost all conflicted.

The cast of characters is complex and well-developed. Rowling masters the ability to create the inner of dialogue of such a large cast, which made the entire novel much more interesting, as you're seeing each characters through their own lens, in addition to that of the people surrounding them. The meeting between Kay and Samantha was probably the most memorable. You aren't ever offered a clear picture of any of the character's physical appearances, but rather tiny glimpses, so you don't really have anything to work with until you see one character through the eyes of another. And it's not just appearances that become more clear, but each individual's motives and authentic personalities. While Kay may seem clingy and clueless through Gavin's eyes, the audience finds she's very dedicated to her job and very intelligent. While she may have a tendency to overlook the obvious, and is tirelessly working on a dead relationship with an individual that doesn't offer much communication, you know that deep down her intentions are good. Krystal Weedon, another example, an individual brought up in terrible circumstances whom the residents of Pagford violently protest, is proclaimed a problem child with ill intentions, but she's only fighting to live and breath in a world that has done everything to thwart her.

There was a running theme of the us-vs-them mentality preserved by the "upstanding" citizens of Pagford. Many of the residents so keen on redrawing the town lines are actually from the Fields and try to bury the memory. The town they're so desperately trying to save from the clutches of the drug abusers is actually a place of misery for many of the players, whether they ever acknowledged the fact or not, when you really look at it. Seemingly soothing places like the lovely The Hilltop House, where the Price family resides, is a place where abuse and terror reign. The abundant hypocrisy is finally addressed when Parminder so regrettably calls attention to the fact that Howard's obesity is also a drain on the government's finances.

Rowling builds a tight community and welcomes the reader without providing many physical descriptions. While there were certain scenes that reminded me of the magic I found in the novels that first made me love her work, it's the conversations and situations that shine in this particular title.
"A misty blue sky stretched like a dome over Pagford and the Fields. Dawn light shone upon the old stone war memorial in the Square, on the cracked concrete facades of Foley Road, and turned the white walls of Hilltop House pale gold."
The death of Krystal and her brother, Robbie, and the subsequent funeral, that most of the town (aside from the Mollison crowd) attends, symbolizes that the Fields are apart of Pagford. While the reader doesn't ever learn the fate of the Bellchapel Hospital, or what becomes of Andrew Price and his abusive father, or Gaia Bawden and her mother Kay, it's safe to say that things have changed dramatically.

The conclusion was somewhat unexpected and very sad. I'll admit that I wasn't really getting into the novel before the second half. I thought I'd walk away maybe a little disappointed but glad I read it. I can say that I'm glad I read it and wasn't disappointed. Rowling addressed some issues that I think everyone can relate to in some form or fashion with honesty and  a little exaggeration. While it's not the most uplifting story, I would still encourage readers that are on the fence to give it a try.

Looking forward to seeing what everyone else has to say!


  1. I completely agree about the ending -- I found it unexpected but necessary for the story. The various townspeople ignoring Robbie was really the detail that made it a judgment on the entirety of Pagford. In the end, Sukhvinder really comes out as the hero of the story, and only Fats and Howard were so horrible that they had no redeeming qualities.

    The more I think about this book, the happier I am with it. There were definitely some pacing problems at the start, but as a whole I think it was tremendously successful. (And I'm so glad! I would have been really sad if I disliked JKR's first post-Potter book.)

    1. Rayna,
      That's what I liked most about your review. I kept thinking back about how all of these characters saw Robbie before he died and how they were so caught up in their own problems or prejudice that they simply ignored a small child on his own. I can understand it's political value as it seems to say so much about how much people are willing to take care of others and so forth. I was in Sukhvinder's corner most of the novel and really felt for her because she seemed to be the most sympathetic. Fats and Howards really made me want to scream. And Shirley.. oh my goodness that lady was thick. Patricia's comment at the party definitely didn't come as a shocker!
      I agree that I'm enjoying it more. I'm sure so much will come in the days to come. I'll admit I had a hard time really forming a cohesive piece about it. Thanks for participating!

    2. Honestly, I think that was the saddest part of the book. The deaths were sad, of course, but the reality of several adults failing to help a small child because they were caught up in their own petty problems... JKR really hits you in the gut with that one.

      I actually didn't see the Patricia reveal coming at all! I was pretty surprised. And Shirley's reaction to the betrayal was kind of crazy, but also made sense in a way.

  2. I'm still not convinced about reading this one. Perhaps it's because I was a late arrival to the fan club of Harry Potter, but the story just isn't grabbing me. Maybe I'm more of a fan of the writing in HP than of the author herself?
    I'm glad you enjoyed it, though. :)

    1. Lindsey,
      The plot sounds a little boring, I'll admit. I really was drawn into it until over halfway through. I think it really displays Rowling's talent as a writer and her subtle approach to political issues to make it more palatable. I would love to see what you think if you decide to read it!
      It's very different than Harry Potter but as creative in other ways.

  3. woop. can't read on as i don't want spoilers. but i'll be sure to check back after i've read it!

    1. Erin,
      I'd love to hear your thoughts once you read it! Hope you enjoy :)

  4. Perhaps I will give it a try then, once all of the hype has died down a bit. I'm not surprised it's dark as the HP books are quite dark for children's books.

    1. Sam,
      Yeah, I think you should take a chance. I think you'd be pleasantly surprised. Plus, I'll admit it's also a selfish move on my behalf because I want to see what you think! I guess I didn't think about the fact that Harry Potter books are pretty dark.. lots of killing (even those we held so dear) and that sense that everything can crash around us. Very dark indeed! Let me know what you think when you decide to pick it up!

  5. As someone who has yet to read the Harry Potter series - DON'T JUDGE ME - I didn't have the same set of expectations as most others.

    I thoroughly enjoyed this and even a week later find myself thinking about the characters, their motivations and their individual and collective situations. I think it's really a mark of Rowling's talent that I started out pretty much loathing every single character in the book, with the exception of Sukhvinder, from the get-go and ended up really embracing a number of them. They're all incredibly flawed, to be sure, but for me that's what gave the book the realism that allowed me to get swept up in their stories so completely.

    Something else that really resonated with me was how I saw so many parallels between this world that Rowling created and our own uber-polarized political climate here in the U.S.

    1. I agree. I really detested most of the characters when I first started but towards the end felt more sympathy for many of them. While Howard and Fats were my least favorite, I didn't really love Shirley or Gavin either. They definitely had to be flawed in order to create the conflict, obviously, but I thought she didn't go so far as to make them totally unrelateable. And I completely agree about seeing those parallels. It's actually so disheartening when you really think about it. The campaign from both sides has been something to see and the ways I've seen people reacting. I didn't know you could hate a candidate so much.. especially considering the fact that you don't even know these people. Anyway. Glad you enjoyed it.
      I could never judge. I loved Harry Potter but had no difficulty separating the two works.

  6. I enjoyed the first part of the novel, but was really hooked on the second half. And like someone mentioned above, I find that I like it more and more after finishing it. I was so STRUCK by the shattering ending that I hadn't even paused to consider what the funeral indicated about the inclusion of the Fields in Pagford, but you're definitely right about that point.

    Thanks again for hosting the readalong - it definitely got me reading this one right upon release rather than letting it linger on the shelf for too long (as FAR too many other books do, of course...).

    1. Kerry, I agree. I kind of thought that the Fields were staying in Pagford. Everyone finally came together and that was that. Especially considering that Howard was pretty much out at that point and Miles and Samantha seemed like she'd probably be a bit more sympathetic. However, I remember thinking, while I was reading, actually shouting in my head, WHY ARE THESE PEOPLE LETTING THIS KID JUST HANG OUT in a dangerous area?!? However, it still seemed like it wasn't going to happen as it was approaching. I don't think as a teen I was ever that reckless but it's clear that neither are completely responsible. And to think it's all fiction and we're just having this heartfelt debate it about it all! It was so sad. I had grown attached and wanted Krystal to make it and move above what her mother had done. The scene with sexual assault was especially gruesome and I just felt so terrible and wanted the best.

  7. Okay I finally got to come back and read this - I didn't want to go near any posts before I finished since we said spoilers were okay.

    I thought the ending was unexpected as well, and I did like it, but a part of me felt like it was an easy way out for Rowling to show the drastic differences between Pagford and the Fields and how we really shouldn't judge those who are born into less fortunate circumstances than our own, even though some of us do. It was just like okay, they both died, that's sad... but it didn't really make me think about much except for what their deaths meant on the surface. Does that make sense? I'm having a hard time articulating my thoughts.

    I'm glad you mentioned the "us vs. them" mentality because it made me think about Joyce Carol Oats' novel THEM and I didn't even think to compare it before you mentions it. Now I'm thinking about how much better Oats' novel was compared to Rowling's in terms of what it accomplished and how much more engaged I was.

    I'm glad we did this read-along! Whether I love or hate the book, it's much more fun to discuss it with someone who has just read it as well!

  8. Finally finished the book and needed a few days to just sit with it. Your final thoughts are bang on. The us vs. them mentality and the great character development makes this a good book.

    Watching a few characters simply putting blinders on while Robbie was obviously alone bothered me so much. I cannot articulate how this bothered me and begged to question...would I? I wrote several questions while reading, but one I wouldn't mind you to chime in on is this, "Why did the reader not get a deeper glimpse into Mary's life?"

    I am very glad I perservered and finished this novel.


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