Tag Archives: The Casual Vacancy

Foretelling the Reception of Lee’s Second: Go Set a Watchman and The Casual Vacancy

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As you may or may not know, today marks the release of Harper Lee’s second published book, Go Set a Watchman, a companion to her famous To Kill a Mockingbird. Barnes & Noble prior to its release treated the book with a secrecy and suspense to equal their response to a new Harry Potter book. While the American company, Barnes & Noble, has been treating Go Set a Watchman with the utmost secrecy, The Guardian, a British-born newspaper (they’ve had an online American edition since 2007), released online Friday the first chapter of the book, a thing they wouldn’t have dared to do for any of J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter novels. As I woke up to open the story three hours early for the throng of people that Barnes & Noble expected to rush to buy the book, I started thinking of J. K. Rowling.

Following the runaway success of her Harry Potter series, Rowling, a British author, released The Casual Vacancy, a book condemned as “too British” by too many Americans and by many worldwide as not enough like Harry Potter. Her reviews were tainted by fans expecting another Harry Potter, never minding that the two books were written for different aged audiences.

I can’t claim any knowledge of how The Casual Vacancy was handled by bookstores in the U.K. or frankly of how it was handled in the U.S., but I wonder if the very American nature of Lee’s prior novel meant that the British newspaper felt Go Set a Watchman deserving of less sanctity than did the American company, Harper Lee being something of an American heroine.

I don’t think I would be alone in citing To Kill a Mockingbird as one of “the great American novels.” The novel deals with America’s historic and present problems of racism and classism and lauds the purported American ideal of individual worth. The more innocent parts of young Scout’s childhood are nostalgically read by many Americans. It is one of the bestselling novels of all-time by an American author. (It is soundly surpassed by only seven other novels by American authors.*)

I think Go Set a Watchman is Lee’s Casual Vacancy, certainly in the way it will be received. Already I had one customer tell me that she had heard that reviews complained about Lee “ruining” her characters (an impossibility, really, since Lee as the author is the only authority on her characters), comparing the novel to To Kill a Mockingbird without consideration not only to the history of the manuscript (which is an interesting one to say the least) or the intended audiences of each novel, which I believe differ, though I wouldn’t swear to it.

To escape such colored reviews of her next book following Casual Vacancy, Rowling published under the male pseudonym Robert Galbraith. Since outed as Galbraith, Rowling has done a decent job of slipping beneath the radar. Her latest publication, a hardbound copy of her 2008 commencement speech for Harvard University, I discovered only after it had been put on the shelves of Barnes & Noble, the publication having been subjected to no hype whatsoever.

As Go Set a Watchman uses the same characters as To Kill a Mockingbird, it would be impossible for Lee to have chosen a pseudonym, but I wonder if she might wish that she had been able to do so. Were she to publish a third book with a different set of characters and a different setting (unlikely sadly), I would be unsurprised to see her try to distance from the Finches and from Maycomb by choosing a pseudonym as Rowling did to distance herself from Harry and Hogwarts. I fear, as it did for Rowling with The Casual Vacancy, the hype and love for her first book will ultimately hurt the reception of Lee’s second.

*Yeah, so Wikipedia’s not the best source, but according to Wikipedia, those novels are Dan Brown’s DaVinci Code, J. D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, Robert James Waller’s The Bridges of Madison County, J. P. Donleavy’s The Ginger Man, E. B. White’s Charlotte’s Web, Lew Wallace’s Ben-Hur, and Johnston McCulley’s The Mark of Zorro. This list excludes non-fiction books, of which there were three by American authors that sold better than To Kill a Mockingbird according to this same source.

Full disclosure: I’ve not read even the first chapter of Go Set a Watchman, but I have been following the drama surrounding its publication.

Book Review: The Casual Vacancy Casually Showcases Rowling’s Grasp of Raw Humanity

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Click to visit the publisher's site for links to order, summary, author interview, and author bio.

Sometimes you really understand a cliché. Reading J. K. Rowling’s first post-Potter and first adult book is like watching a train wreck—but not in the way that you are probably suspecting.

The Casual Vacancy was received with very mixed reviews but more often than not I heard responses that were at best lukewarm and at their worst negatively incendiary, so I was not greatly moved to read it, not wanting to blemish my already waning love of the author with a less than worthwhile book.

The Casual Vacancy exceeded my expectations. Rowling’s style—which I have with older eyes recognized as not spectacular—is still visible in places (though I doubt I’d have been able to recognize it as hers if she had written beneath a pseudonym). I was, however, impressed and somewhat justified by Rowling’s handling of adult subject matter (—justified as a member of fandom and an adherent to some fanon, which is often darker than the middle-grade readers of Harry Potter ought perhaps to be exposed to, Rowling’s recognition of the possibility and existence of these darker realities seems to make possible for her YA world some of the ideas that adults fans have tried to impose upon it). Here we find drug abuse, poverty, workaholism, picket-fence-syndrome1, domestic violence, mental illness, teen angst (we all grumbled at Harry’s nosedive into angst during book 5, but Harry never achieved anything near the angst of Fats Wall or Sukhvinder Jawanda), self-harm, prostitution, rape…. What I mean to say is that this book is only lacking in rock ‘n’ roll, and it would complete the gamut of subjects unsuitable for children.

Rowling’s ability to play on either side of the Age Line has propelled her back towards a spot among my favorite authors. And speaking of Age Lines, can we give her a round of applause for mastering both the child and the adult POV in a single story? Though I would say here that she more clearly captures humanity. All characters speak with a rather accurate childlikeness. The children are just more aware of authority figures above them whether these authority figures are respected, feared, or despised.

I have always admired Rowling’s ability to handle a large cast. Here, I feel as if with her multiple close third person perspectives, she actually handled this less well than she did in Harry Potter. In Harry Potter, I always had the sense of every character having a complex back story and emotions of his or her own but I had Harry’s perspective to fall back upon for solidity. Without a grounding character, the back stories and emotions are all manifest in The Casual Vacancy, and the characters are made to seem more complex, but it is also more difficult to grasp the whirl of skirts and suits as I am offered varying and sometimes conflicting ideas of each character in rapid succession. Multiple readings might help to solidify these characters and make each more visible, but I somewhat doubt that I will readily reach for The Casual Vacancy again, suffering as I do from an acute desire for escapism in place of realism.

Perhaps what can be said of both books and both worlds is that Rowling brings to each a stark realism but that we would rather believe in and escape to a world where magic, prophecy, and good-versus-evil battle can often cast a veneer over the darker aspects of socially acceptable prejudice and racism and enslavement than the one of Casual Vacancy that strips away the veneer and leaves us stranded nearer home and seeing even more of the darkness of humanity.

The Casual Vacancy is largely character-based, so I really have very little to say about the plot.

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1A colloquialism that I’m here defining as the unrelenting desire for perfection or the appearance of perfection sought after to the detriment of self or others or morality.

Rowling, J. K. The Casual Vacancy. New York: Little, Brown-Hachette, 2012.

This review is not endorsed by J. K. Rowling, Little, Brown and Company, or Hachette Book Group.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.