Book review: J.K. Rowling's grown-up book keeps it real

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There is a certain kind of book written by a certain kind of author that prompts a certain kind of exasperation: "No matter what I say, fans will buy this, read this, worship this. (Please do not throw bricks at my window.)" Weary reviewers of Stephenie Meyer's works -- and Nicholas Sparks' and Dan Brown's -- have uttered variations on this wounded bleat of indignation.

I mention that because of a universe-shifting occasion in the literary world. It involves She Who Need Not Be Named and a Tome of Destiny. Yes. Five years after concluding her "Harry Potter" series, J.K. Rowling has written a new book.

"The Casual Vacancy"
By J.K. Rowling
Little, Brown ($35)

It is called "The Casual Vacancy." It is for adults, and it is not about adult wizards.

At some level, the very existence of "The Casual Vacancy" represents a truckload of moxie. Namely: If you were Ms. Rowling, and you had sold 450 million copies, and your seven HP books had been made into eight blockbuster movies, would you be diligently writing another book, or would you be buying Monaco and drinking bottomless Kir Royales on a raft in your Brita-filtered pool?

At another level, this book represents a truckload of shrewdness. In her first grown-up novel, Ms. Rowling has chosen to construct her plot around a local municipal election -- a world so far away from Platform 93/4 that it would be unfair and ludicrous to compare it with her previous works.

Except, of course, that Ms. Rowling's signature moves are still there on every page. Just as her boy-wizard series opened with an archly winking look at the upending of the Dursley family's boring lives, "The Casual Vacancy" does the same with a town. One man suffers an untimely death, the gossip mill churns, and Ms. Rowling offers the twinkly observation, "It was all immensely exciting."

The dead fellow in question is Barry Fairbrother, whose passing leaves behind one grieving widow, four cameo-appearance children, eight members of the high school crew team he coached, and one empty seat in the town council of Pagford, an English parish girding itself against the encroaching urban sprawl of nearby Yarvil. Several men toss their hats into the election ring for the eponymous "casual vacancy" on the council: Simon Price, a petty criminal who sees the government position as a means to blackmail and bribery; Colin Wall, a duty-bound school principal; and Miles Mollison, the son of an existing council member whose parents want him elected to clinch support for their pet issues.

Pagford's biggest issue is the Fields, a blighted, low-income neighborhood whose residents dare to take advantage of Pagford's schools and churches. The Mollisons are leading the charge to have the Fields placed under Yarvil's jurisdiction. The late Barry Fairbrother had been their most vocal opponent, mentoring a potty-mouthed Fields girl named Krystal, who is fooling around with Colin Wall's son, who is best friends with Simon Price's son, who is in love with the daughter of the caseworker assigned to Krystal.

Ms. Rowling has been heralded more for her world-building skills than her wordsmith ones, but I've always loved her nimble voice and the quick way she managed to get inside a character's head and simultaneously comment on its contents.

In this 500-page book, Ms. Rowling re-traverses the Potter series' entire tonal journey: a gradual darkening in which snide comments on small stakes give way to sharp commentary on big ones. No amount of Reparo spells can undo the things that are done; we're not in Hogwarts anymore.

Which brings up the largest question that every reader of this book will be asking: Can Ms. Rowling do it, when "it" isn't "Harry Potter"?

In her magical series, some of her most spellbinding work related to the minutiae of the world she'd created: What is the sickle-to-galleon conversion in wizarding money? What are the Irish team's odds in the Quidditch World Cup? Her writing in "The Casual Vacancy" might be as lively as it ever was, but when the minutiae here include a multi-page history of Pagford/Yarvil property lines, I wondered if I shouldn't just be perusing the minutes of my real-life neighborhood ward's meetings. A lazy critic might coyly query whether "The Casual Vacancy" contains enough magic.

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 incidents I immediately reread because the developments were surprising or genuinely moving. There were characters that I liked, then disliked, then liked again with reservations.

But I could not stop from having one overarching thought, which the devoted fan in me loathes to share since I'm certain it's the one Ms. Rowling is most loath to hear: This book would be a little better if everyone were carrying wands.


Monica Hesse is a staff writer for the Washington Post Style section.


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