Wednesday, February 6, 2013

February Book Review Club

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@Barrie Summy

"Scattered flurries" are accumulating on the ground as I write this--a joyful sight in a snowless Maine winter, although I doubt it will be deep enough to ski on it. Nothing for it but to settle down by the woodstove with a good book. Not sure this one will cheer you up--better try it with a sun lamp. 

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By J.K. Rowling
Little, Brown & Company, 2012

Every Christmas, my man Rob and I give each other nothing but books, all purchased from our crackerjack independent bookstore, Blue Hill Books. Although the staff there know our tastes and are remarkably astute advice-givers, I also take the precaution of mentioning (loudly, and with heft) what it is I’m hoping to read.

This year, as Samantha and I chatted over the front counter, I said I really didn’t think I could handle THE CASUAL VACANCY, the first book for adults by celebrated Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling. This lodged in her overtaxed holiday brain as “Ellen wants that book,” and so she instructed Rob.

You’ve probably read the excoriating reviews this book received, so you know I was expecting the worst: Drab, depressing characters going nowhere in a badly written novel.  I actually considered returning it, but then I flipped a few pages.

And by gorry, the writing grabbed me, with that odd mix of coziness and cynicism common to a lot of British novelists of a half-century ago or more: Kingley Amis, for example, or Muriel Spark. Not to modern tastes, perhaps, but for a throw-back like me it was manna.

Here’s one small-town character’s reaction to the book’s catalyst, the death of Parish Councilor Barry Fairbrother:

Naturally Shirley had known, as they slid stock words and phrases back and forth between them like beads on an abacus, that Howard must be as brimful of ecstasy as she was; but to express these feelings out loud, when the news of the death was still fresh in the air, would have been tantamount to dancing naked and shrieking obscenities, and Howard and Shirley were clothed, always, in an invisible layer of decorum that they never laid aside.

Okay, that’s one of the world’s longest sentences, but I’m sucked right in by the abacus imagery and the dancing-naked/clothed-in-decorum juxtaposition, not to mention the insight into this awful marriage.

The book does have serious problems. Oddly, considering that the characters are so well drawn, I had a heck of a time keeping them straight in my head. There are so many of them, and all of them with equal weight—nobody’s the protagonist, except maybe the dead guy. Halfway through the book, I still couldn’t remember who was married to whom and had which kids. It made me determined to re-read Anthony Trollope, the nineteenth century novelist who did the same type of casting but still managed to keep everyone screamingly distinct.  

Although Rowling’s wry humor is well represented, there’s no arguing that her book is relentlessly depressing. And you struggle to like any of the small-minded, drug-addled, unhappily mated characters. I kept thinking of E.F. Benson, whose Lucia novels of the 1920s and 30s followed the machinations of a bunch of provincial social climbers. Lucia and friends start out in the first chapter as barely likeable figures of satire, but Benson slowly falls in love with them—especially Lucia—and starts giving them some qualities that will make us love them, too.

Rowling doesn't seem to have fallen in love with these characters, although she’s more sympathetic to the miserable teens than to the damaged and damaging adults.   

I’m not sure this book would have been published if it hadn't had Rowling’s name on it--not because it's bad, but because it's delightfully old-fashioned. I also don't think it would have been so badly reviewed if everybody hadn't been expecting a more adult Harry Potter.

Despite the difficulties, I’m glad I read it--partly because I really did admire the writing, and technique was not the Potter novels’ strong suit. But also it gives me hope that, having rid her system of the unused profanities and angst she’d built up up through seven kids’ fantasies, Rowling will write a real winner the next time.