Just yesterday we celebrated Thanksgiving – where we pay homage to those pioneers who helped to populate and found our country from long ago, and where dysfunctional families of all sizes and makeups come together to share a meal and an afternoon together. You know what I’m talking about. The weird uncle who watches football the whole time and doesn’t talk to anyone. The cousin who seems to have a new date to bring to dinner every year. The twins that seem to be able to communicate without even speaking, leaving you feel like you’re a third wheel when you try to converse with them.
In a way, The Casual Vacancy, by J.K. Rowling, is the story of a dysfunctional family. It follows the lives of 7 families who live in the community of Pagford, a small English city outside of the booming metropolis of Yarvil. The Mollisons are long established in the community and are involved in local politics. The Walls are dealing with the loss of a dear family friend and growing pains that come with having a teenage son. The Prices are survivors who live in terror of their family head, a complete asshole named Simon. The Fairbrothers are a grieving family who has lost their father suddenly. The Jawandas are the only Indian family in the community and have raised a family of over-achievers, save one frustrating child. The Weedons are a family down on their luck who is just trying to survive every day. And finally, there’s Kay Bawden and her daughter Gaia. New to the community, they are soon swept up in the local politics that have run the town for over 50 years.
Over 6 parts, we discover each member of these families and how they interact with each other, and other families within the community. All the characters presented have unfortunate parts of their personalities which make them unlikeable and only a few of them are shown to have any redeeming qualities. Simon Price, for example, is an anti-social petty criminal who terrorizes his family with threats of violence and actual violence when he deems appropriate. Paranoid, he engages in white collar crime and then blames his family when his actions cost him his job. His son, responsible for outing his father’s illegal activities and kissing a classmates mother at a holiday party, is however, redeemable in the fact that he is just trying to get his mother to see the true colors of Simon so they may escape the family situation they’re in.
Overall, this is a great story. It’s a story of reflection and how you perceive yourself. Shirley Mollison, one the characters in the books, says it best when she says that the city of Pagford is a reflection of Shirley. On the outside it’s quaint and lovely, having a great school system and a caring local government. But like Shirley herself, Pagford refuses to see the in-fighting amongst residences and the out-skirts where a drug clinic and the less fortunate fight every day for survival. Pagford only sees what it wants to see, its redeemable qualities. And in try to keep these qualities in the forefront, it ends up doing itself more damage than should have happened.
I will mention that I was disappointed by the end. There didn’t seem to be much of a resolution. A lot was left unresolved that I think could have been handled in a couple of chapters tacked onto the end. I felt as if I only got a partial story and was missing the end of the book. But this could have been done purposefully by the author. Maybe she wanted to leave us with that feeling that things are unresolved.
Just a word of caution: For those of you who know J.K. Rowling as the author of Harry Potter, don’t be fooled. This is not Harry Potter reincarnate. Pagford is a regular town with regular folks and once you learn of its short-comings, it’s not even that pleasant of a town. Also, it’s a slow read. In true John Grisham style, Rowling spends half the book setting the stage for what will happen in the next half. Therefore, until you reach the end of Part 3, you may struggle to keep your attention. But stick with it, the story’s just begun and it gets interesting.
Have you ever read a book by an author who was writing for the first time in another genre than what you’re used to seeing them write in?