There’s been much speculation as to whether Harry Potter creator J.K. Rowling’s first book strictly for adults would be noticeably different from the series that made her a worldwide sensation. Just a few pages into The Casual Vacancy shows us that her new book is much more than a casual foray out of the fantasy world.

When an aneurysm claims the life of Barry Fairbrother, the burst blood vessel in his brain sets off an even greater explosion within the English village of Pagford — aside from the devastation to his family and friends, Fairbrother’s death leaves an open seat on the local parish council, requiring an election to fill the slot. Longtime resident and councilor Howard Mollison sees this as the perfect opportunity to bring his son, Miles, onto the governing body in order to diminish the amount of support for the contentious subject matter of The Fields, a public housing section sitting between the small town and the neighboring city of Yarvil for which Fairbrother always gave an unwavering promotion despite its poor status of The Fields among the rest of Pagford. The election draws the interest of other residents as well, particularly Fairbrother’s neurotic best friend, Colin Wall, who wants to uphold his companion’s legacy, and double-dealing Simon Price, who thinks being on the council will translate to kickbacks and other benefits. With the campaigns underway, the community’s main talking point is who will win, but when rumors about the candidates and other members of the council begin swirling around, the election itself is almost secondary next to the allegations which keep popping up.

Though the story’s most essential personality drops dead in the prologue, there’s no shortage of colorful characters for us to get to know in place of Fairbrother, though his spirit seems to linger as events transpire following his demise. As he lives on in the thoughts of others, not all of them are positive, with middle-aged mountain man Howard Mollison’s every contemplation being one of vengeful derision against the man he considered his nemesis in preserving the grand conservative traditions of Pagford. That goes double for his nosy, self-important wife, Shirley, who’s never without a thinly veiled criticism against her fellow Pagfordians, always eager to gather dirt on everyone in her small town whether through her volunteer job at the local hospital or just assuming the worst of everyone around her. The gossip mill is well at work in this hamlet, and most of the rumors are pure fact, such as those about Fields teen Krystal Weedon, a troublemaker with a hopelessly damaged drug addict for a mother whose one supporter within the community, her rowing coach Barry, is no longer around to give her a feeling of worth. She’s not the only kid with problems — take your pick from Andrew Price, whose dad Simon beats and berates him on a daily basis; his best friend, Stuart “Fats” Wall, doing everything he can to rebel against his button-down parents; and Sukhvinder Jawanda, the disappointingly average daughter of two of Pagford’s most prominent doctors, experimenting with razor blades in response to her parents’ lack of interest in her and constant bullying at school. The only well-adjusted 16-year-old in the bunch is gorgeous Gaia Bowden — possibly because she didn’t grow up in this town — putting all her hopes in moving back to London to get away from her social worker mother Kay and Kay’s begrudging boyfriend Gavin, who’s in love with… well, someone else.

With more than 30 major characters, Rowling shows us a wide range of perspectives as opposed to her more famous books, which, for the most part, were seen through the eyes of one boy. The multiple points of view are reminiscent of Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities, as the lives of the upper and lower classes intersect, sometimes by accident, sometimes by design, usually with some pretty profane results. After writing for younger readers, Rowling lets loose with a tremendous amount of expletives that certainly wouldn’t suit the usual Harry Potter fans, although most wouldn’t be too shocked to hear such obscenities uttered by the likes of Ron Weasley, Sirius Black or Bellatrix Lestrange. Rowling leaves little to the imagination in her prose, which is more intense in its handling of situations like sex, drug use, and domestic violence. If only the people of Pagford had a magic wand to do away with such realities, which many blissfully ignore even when face to face with them, the “Dursleyish” Mollisons more than most. This may be a place populated entirely by Muggles, but the same undertones of Rowling’s world of wizards and witches seep through in her writing style, which may be more difficult for American readers to take in with scores of British idioms spread across the pages — i.e., across the pond, running for public office is referred to as “standing.” This may deter some from delving deeply into the text, and the subject material appears pretty mundane for the first hundred pages or so.

The plot starts to get juicy the further you read, thanks to a poorly policed parish council Web site that flings open the closet doors of Pagford residents to reveal the skeletons within and wreaks havoc on their daily lives. However, Rowling’s weakness is an inability to pace herself, with pages and pages of descriptive nothingness leading up to huge moments where everything happens all at once. Several important characters become increasingly one-dimensional the more we get to know them and their motivations, while others are staggeringly authentic, perhaps no more than Krystal Weedon, whose impoverished upbringing mirrors her creator’s humble beginnings before striking literary gold. The amount of care the author puts into each and every person in this tale makes it impossible not to be immersed in their lives even if the story itself never becomes more than a soap opera.

Rowling lays a lot on the line with The Casual Vacancy, and the lack of built-in controversy possessed by Harry Potter doesn’t work in her favor. The book’s mixture of dark humor and soft-hearted sentiment puts it in such a place where it’s not forceful enough to demand a look from those who rarely bother with novels and too explicit for your mother’s book club selection of the month. Even so, once you’ve read it from cover to cover, you’ll be glad you did, though someone like yours truly who uses a Hogwarts bookmark may be biased.

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