Harry Potter's saga may have ended in 2007, but his creator J.K. Rowling still casts a spell over the literary world. On Thursday, Rowling's first novel for adults, the heavily hyped The Casual Vacancy, officially debuted after massive preorders. The 512-page novel, which chronicles the squabbles in a small English town after the unexpected death of a local politician, has heretofore been largely shrouded in secrecy; many reviewers were required to sign an unusually lengthy non-disclosure agreement if they wanted to read it at all. But with The Casual Vacancy's official release, critical opinion and analysis about Rowling's first foray into the world of Muggles has flooded the internet, with Potter fans discovering that The Casual Vacancy contains 100 percent fewer magic spells and 100 percent more references to characters' genitals. Will Rowling succeed in adult fiction or should she have stayed within the walls of Hogwarts?
The Casual Vacancy is a stunningly assured adult debut
The Casual Vacancy is "a big, ambitious, brilliant, profane, deeply upsetting and magnificently eloquent novel of contemporary England," raves Lev Grossman at TIME. Rowling's adult debut is "rich with literary intelligence and utterly bereft of bullshit," proving that she "understands both human beings and novels very, very deeply." It may not be a new Harry Potter — and it's certainly not for children — but The Casual Vacancy showcases some of Rowling's familiar strengths as a novelist, and adds a surprising range of new ones.
Actually, The Casual Vacancy is a disappointment
"It's easy to understand why Mrs. Rowling wanted to try something totally different" after 15 years of writing the Harry Potter series, says Michiko Kakutani at The New York Times. Unfortunately, her vision of the real-life world is "so depressingly cliched that The Casual Vacancy is not only disappointing — it's dull." It lacks imagination and it lacks the "complex ambiguity that fueled the later Harry Potter installments."
It has all the strengths and flaws of Dickens
The Casual Vacancy "has all the satisfactions and frustrations" of a traditional sprawling English novel in the vein of Charles Dickens, says Theo Tait at The Guardian. Rowling has created a "richly peopled, densely imagined" world, and The Casual Vacancy successfully evokes the claustrophobia of small-town life. But the novel also suffers from Dickensian flaws: Its plot is contrived and predictable, and it eventually devolves into melodrama. It's a book worth reading, but it will also leave readers with "a slight sense of disappointment."
Rowling goes too far to prove she's not just "the creator of Harry Potter"
The Casual Vacancy signals Rowling's almost desperate determination to "distance herself from the innocent pleasure of wizards and Quidditch," says Rob Brunner at Entertainment Weekly. Pointedly targeting adults, The Casual Vacancy "piles on the unpleasantness — not just smack and tawdry sex, but also rape, child abuse, self-mutilation, suicide, pedophilia, and mental illness." By its end, Rowling's efforts to prove herself an adult author have backfired; the "predictable and heavy-handed" conclusion is just too much.
But there are still surprising echoes of the Harry Potter series
It may not be a new Harry Potter book, but you'll be able to tell that it came from Harry Potter's author, says Malcolm Jones at The Daily Beast. Like Harry Potter, The Casual Vacancy's most fully-formed characters are its villains, who possess an "irresistible energy" that drives the story forward. And as always, Rowling has written a page-turner, with a convincing (and troubling) message. It's clear that Rowling "did not become the world's bestselling author by accident."
Consensus: The Casual Vacancy is sprawlingly intelligent but flawed by predictability and a certain sense of overkill.