The Casual Vacancy - J.K. Rowling
This is not Harry Potter. That much was made clear by both Ms. Rowling and her publisher. However, I so thoroughly enjoyed Harry Potter, I thought I'd give her a chance to impress me in a genre that really is much more up my alley than YA fantasy. (With the notable exception of Harry Potter, I gave up reading fantasy over 15 years ago.)

So here's what we should all know about JK Rowling's style, regardless of genre. She excells at creating despicable characters (The Dursleys, Dolores Umbridge). And even her protagonists have been known to act so badly you just want to smack them upside the head (remember Harry in Half-Blood Prince?). As I read the first couple hundred pages of The Casual Vacancy, it was hard to know who I was supposed to root for, because with few exceptions, each new character we were introduced to was more loathsome than the last (narrow-minded bigots, bullies, self-important do-nothings, small-time con men, women deluding themselves that there is nothing wrong with their children and/or the men in their lives, and a commitment-phobic loser who fears being alone more than being tied down and ultimately sets his sights on the most unavailable woman in town). The only people I had a hard time working up a dislike for are those whom society generally shuns as a whole - the poor, uneducated, underprivileged who we so love to villify as being drains on society for being on public assistance. I also could not work up too strong a dislike for many of the prominant female characters (Kay, Tessa, Ruth and Samantha) because I recognized bits of myself in them.

The Casual Vacancy is a masterfully written analysis of class. Although the setting is a small English village, it could just as easily take place in a small midwest town in America. The characters are universal. They are our friends, our neighbors, the people we work with, the people we pretend don't exist. I think if that had been all there was to the novel, just observing the lives of the residents of Pagford after the death of one of its prominent citizens, it would have been an okay book, worthy of at least a 3-star, or maybe even a 4-star rating. However, the sudden tragic turn of events that occurred at the end really made this a first rate novel. I read John Irving's A Prayer for Owen Meany earlier this year, and I would say The Casual Vacancy is nearly as strong. Yes, it's slow at times, yes it feels like it drags and meanders to the point where it doesn't feel cohesive, but but the ending really pulls everything together.