|The Casual Vacancy|
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What I have always loved about Rowling's writing is her ability to create characters that seem real. She knows her characters,she knows what to do with them, and she isn't afraid to let bad things happen to them. In this novel, she has dozens of characters to work with, and oftentimes background information has to be supplied and the actual plot suspended so that the reader can keep up with everyone. I personally don't mind because I find these characters absolutely fascinating, but the lack of action isn't going to appeal to everyone.
With many books it is very clear who the reader should be "rooting" for, since one character seems to stand above the rest morally or in talent. If you are expecting the same formula in this book you will be disappointed, because each character is deeply flawed, each with his or her own ugliness. My point is that there is no hero, unless you count the deceased Barry Fairbrother, and I even wonder about him. Again, I find this refreshing. It makes me irrationally annoyed to see so many bestsellers about a klutzy, yet otherwise completely endearing protagonist attracting all men within a ten mile radius. You will not find that here. Thank God.
The counterpoint to this is that each character is also endearing or relatable in his or her own way. With each shifting viewpoint (and there are many), new insights are revealed that make it easier to understand each character. It is a style that makes it hard to put the book down, since she never gives you all you want to know at once.
Other points: I'm a fast reader, and ordinarily I'd have knocked this out in a night, but I decided to stretch it out over a couple of days. I really think this helps for understanding the characters and their connections better -- if you don't get those, you won't understand the plot.
Also, many people are commenting on the use of strong language, sexuality, and rape. Personally, I think if you are going to write about problems in a small town and the people in it, these things almost beg to be addressed. That Rowling did not avoid them speaks to her strength as a character writer; it doesn't mean, for example, that she's using four letter words just because she can't think of a better one.