On Tuesday, November 6th, 2012, something historic happened (no, not the election): four lovely ladies from The Broke and The Bookish got together over Skype to discuss one of the most anticipated and most reviewed books of the year.
The following transcript is the result of several hours on Skype and another several hours of editing. We invite you to enter the minds of Kimberly, Lori, Tahleen, and Bridget as they discuss The Casual Vacancy by J. K. Rowling. Enjoy!
Kimberly: Okay, here goes!
Bridget: Okay, so. How far did each of you get?
Kimberly: ... page 80.
Lori: I got to page 183.
Lori: Tahleen said she got to page 50.
Bridget: Yeah, I remembered someone was page 50. Are you two still reading, or have you given up?
Lori: I have given up for the time being.
Kimberly: I set mine aside for a couple of weeks, then I'll go back to it.
Bridget: Yeah, it took me two weeks to get back into it. I stopped at page 50, avoided it for two weeks, and then went back because I felt guilty.
Kimberly: Same here. I feel guilty I haven't finished it. I mean, it's J.K.!
Lori: I want to finish at some point because I paid upwards of $30 for it. I don't know if I'll like it better when I pick it up again.
Bridget: It picked up for me around page 200, which is pretty far into a book for it to get interesting for me, and I probably wouldn't have picked it back up if it wasn't J. K. Rowling.
Lori: I don't feel guilty for not liking it because it's her. I feel guilty for not liking it because I spent so much money on it. I want to like it, but I'm just not that into it.
Bridget: If only you could give a book the "It's not you, it's me" speech :)
Bridget: Okay, so we're agreed that it was VERY slow in the beginning, for some insurmountably so.
Kimberly: What do you think made the difference?
Lori: My big issue with the book is all of the social/class commentary. I'm just not into that kind of story.
Bridget: Same here. I also just don't understand the British hierarchy of things.
Lori: It's not that I think the writing is horrendous or I'm disappointed it's not Harry. I am perfectly willing to allow her to write something not Harry.
Bridget: Exactly. I just wouldn't have picked up this book if it hadn't been JK.
Lori: Exactly! I picked it up because it was her. But I'm putting it down because of the content.
Kimberly: I like British lit, so I thought I'd enjoy it no matter what.
Bridget: Yeah—to me it actually seemed like a Jane Austen novel set in the present time—all the small-town drama and whatnot. Just with a lot more cursing, drugs, and sex.
Lori: I thought it was British Peyton Place, but more class driven.
Kimberly: And the characters are selfish, which annoyed me. Even though it's realistic.
Bridget: Right. That sort of annoyed me too, that I couldn't really find anyone to really love and sympathize with.
Lori: The characters weren't sympathetic at all. Amanda (deadwhiteguys) didn’t think the characters were sympathetic either. But she liked the book.
Bridget: Yeah, I read her review I think. But in the same vein, JK did an INCREDIBLE job of showing all of the characters in a fair light. And not just "Yeah this guy has flaws, but they REALLY just make him more loveable."
Bridget: Have you guys gotten much about Kay and Gavin yet?
Kimberly: I haven't gotten to them... I don't think. I should have the book next to me.
Lori: I have gotten a little into it.
Bridget: Okay. Once you get to them more, you'll notice more of the whole fairness to all views thing—because it shows Gavin's view of Kay, Kay's daughter's view of her, and others' view of Kay as well, so you see all sides of her personality.
Kimberly: Was Kay the social worker?
Lori: I've seen bits of the fairness. And I like that she shows other sides to people instead of making it one-dimensional.
Kimberly: Agreed, I like all the different perspectives. Although a lot of people have said it's "cheating".
Bridget: I don't know. I like the third-person omniscient thing when it works, and I think it works here.
Kimberly: I think so too.
Lori: I don't view that as a weakness. You have to be able to create distinct voices. I think she does this better at some times than others. There were points that she changed perspective and I had no idea for a couple of paragraphs. I had to go back.
Bridget: Yeah, agreed. Although one of my favorite things about the book, honestly, was the shifting perspectives. It's something Stephen King does a lot and I looooove him. But Lori, I agree that I was confused a few times with that too when the shift in perspective didn't necessarily line up with a chapter change.
Lori: Or with a section break.
Kimberly: Huh. I hadn't made the connection to King, but you're right!
Kimberly: Favorite parts so far? Characters, or scenes... etc?
Lori: Favorite part...putting it down?
Bridget: Awwwww Lori...I'm going to abstain from this, partially because there weren't a lot of happy parts and partially because I don't want to ruin things...
Lori: I just didn't like it.
Kimberly: Okay, fair enough, Bridget. No spoilers.
Lori: Thanks, Bridget, for being spoiler free.
Bridget: Yeah...for favorite characters though, I do like Krystal. If you guys don't yet...I think you will by the end. And I like Kay.
Kimberly: I like what little I've seen/read of Kay.
Lori: Krystal seemed kind of foul. But I'm happy to see that she potentially redeems herself.
Kimberly: I thought the same thing, Lori. But I liked Kay. How much she worried about the kids she was looking after.
Bridget: Think of Krystal a bit as Snape. She really does redeem herself, I promise, but she remains as outwardly...repulsive, if that makes sense. And yes, agreed about Kay.
Lori: I liked Parminder.
Bridget: Yeah, I like her too. I like Andrew Price too. But I'm going to go ahead and admit that I'm biased partially because my boyfriend's name is Andrew so I have an automatic magnetism to the name. But he was definitely a good kid, I think.
Kimberly: I liked him too.
Lori: I liked him as well. His dad was a jerk.
Bridget: Yeah, his dad made my skin crawl.
Lori: I've noticed that a lot of the fathers are extremely, unreasonably harsh. And the mothers seem kind of weak.
Kimberly: That's a good point.
Bridget: Yeah, you're right.
Lori: Except Parminder. She seemed strong.
Bridget: I'd argue that she's the harsh one in that family.
Lori: I didn't know that.
Kimberly: I could see that...
Bridget: You'll get there ;) and her husband wasn't really given much page time so all I know about him is that he's like, movie-star handsome. Not much was said about him at all.
Lori: I do remember that about him.
Bridget: But any of the fathers who were truly explored seemed harsh, like you said, Lori.
Lori: Because that one lady was fantasizing about him during the funeral.
Bridget: Hahaha yeah. Samantha Mollison. And I agree too that the mothers are weak.
Lori: I don't know why, but I kind of liked Samantha too. I thought she was a creep, but there was something about her.
Bridget: Haha, I always liked reading her passages. But I'm not sure I could say I liked HER.
Kimberly: I haven't read far enough to learn much about her yet.
Bridget: Oh, she's fun to read about.
Kimberly: Have you noticed any similarities between this and HP?
Lori: I haven't.
Bridget: For me, the one thing that stuck out was that the kids are basically the heroes and the adults are the foils and/or villains
Kimberly: Ah. Good point.
Bridget: Which again is something that might not be entirely clear until you get further.
Lori: That doesn't surprise me.
Bridget: But it eventually becomes clear that the kids operate more or less below the sightline of the adults, even when they're being victimized by the adults. And the kids are really the ones that actually further the plot along. It starts with Andrew Price about halfway in.
Lori: I can see that from what I've read.
Kimberly: I kinda noticed it early on, the kids seem to be less... blind... If that makes sense. The adults only notice what they want, but the kids are pretty honest.
Bridget: Yeah. Something I think Amanda (deadwhiteguys) said and that I agree with is that JK writes kids spectacularly.
Lori: And the adults seem fake and evil.
Bridget: Yeah, exactly.
Kimberly: Yes, to what both of you said.
Lori: It's not surprising she writes kids better.
Bridget: After all the practice she's had...
Kimberly: After all those years of Harry, definitely not surprising.
Bridget: Okay, so how do you guys feel about the language?
Lori: I was just going to raise that issue!
Bridget: Great minds :)
Kimberly: I'm more conservative so the language was a bit of a bother to me.
Lori: I think it might have been a bit gratuitous at times. Maybe like she used profanity just because she couldn't so much in HP.
Kimberly: I thought the same thing!
Bridget: I agree with both of you. It definitely was a bit of a struggle to get through at times.
Lori: I have no problem with profanity (see my Edgier Truths About Life board on Pinterest) but it got a bit ridiculous.
Kimberly: It really only annoys me when I seems like it's used for no reason.
Bridget: I don't usually, I mean, there's plenty in other things I've read. But usually in things I read it seems necessary or at least appropriate, whereas hear it seemed like she went a bit overboard.
Kimberly: If it's a joke, or someone is truly angry, language is to be expected. But she seemed to use it whenever she could. Maybe it's a British thing...
Bridget: Maybe? I know the c-word is not nearly as big a deal there as it is here. (I don't necessarily remember too many instances of it, but rather more than any American lit I've read.)
Kimberly: I know that half of our words aren't even considered swear words over there. And our 'big' words aren't that bad.
Lori: Strange cultural differences.
Bridget: Hmm. So maybe we're just being oversensitive Americans?
Lori: But I think that it's a factor. It definitely keeps some people from watching or reading things.
Kimberly: True, the language kept me from recommending it to some people.
Lori: I get to the point where I'm like "Do you have any adjectives that don't start with f?"
Kimberly: I thought the same, Lori. She's very creative with the way she describes things, and at times I felt like the curse words got in the way of her usual style.
Lori: What do you think about the possibility of her using so much profanity just because she could? Was it an example of her trying too hard to be anti-HP?
Bridget: I can't decide on that actually. It felt like she was trying to distance herself from HP, but I hesitate to psychoanalyze her. You know?
Kimberly: And I didn't feel like she was trying to distance herself, I never got that impression. It was more like she had several different styles of writing that she wanted to try and HP was one, and CV is another. When she writes in one style, she just jumps headlong in and goes with it.
Bridget: That's about as far as I'd be comfortable going in terms of the "what was she trying to do here" question.
Lori: Yeah. I am all for authors doing something radically different.
Kimberly: Okay, I have another question. If Casual Vacancy was a required read for a college British Lit course, what do you think would be some of the class discussions?
Bridget: Oh, geez. As a linguist my first thought is the language, and how it differs from American dialectical profanity.
Lori: Class relations. Harry Potter (being realistic). The language might come up.
Bridget: Class relations definitely.
Kimberly: I think you're both right.
Bridget: I think the discussion we were just having has a chance of coming up too—the differences in her writing styles (HP vs. CV).
Tahleen: Hello! So what have you all been talking about? Sorry I'm late.
Kimberly: Okay so we talked about the class systems in the book.
Lori: We've talked about favorite characters and about the language.
Kimberly: The differences between cultures.
Lori: We've talked about why we stopped reading...which I think we need to go back to. Maybe.
Bridget: How it was or wasn't similar to HP.
Tahleen: Did you see any similarities?
Kimberly: We noticed that both have the kids as the 'heroes,’ so to speak.
Bridget: Whereas the adults are fake and/or evil.
Tahleen: Hmm. I didn't like any of the characters, really
Lori: I scanned an interview she did about this book.
Kimberly: Oh? What did she say?
Lori: She meant for the kids to be the heroes/victims and the main drivers of the plot.
Bridget: Makes sense. Yay, we win! And Tahleen, we sort of agreed that a lot of characters weren’t really likable, but there were a few we liked.
Lori: Oh, we also talked about whether we'd pick it back up.
Bridget: Tahleen, do you think you will?
Tahleen: I don't think I will, only because it didn't hold my interest and I have to try to keep up with YA lit for my job; there are way more books in that genre that I'd rather read.
Bridget: Fair enough!
Kimberly: Makes sense to me.
Lori: Same here.
Tahleen: It was too depressing, though I can see why it would appeal to others. My friend Kevin said he really enjoys that kind of humor and I recommended the book to him.
Kimberly: I think that people that really enjoy British Lit would enjoy this.
Tahleen: Yes, for sure.
Bridget: I felt it was very depressing too. One of the things I disliked was that nothing good seemed to happen the whole time.
Lori: That's true. Nothing good seemed to happen.
Tahleen: I don't like books that have no hope.
Kimberly: Yeah, when I compared it to Harry Potter I said that in HP the characters are naturally good, and bad stuff happens but it comes out okay in the end. In CV it was more that the people are naturally selfish, and I couldn't see a happy ending in it.
Lori: Again, she said that that was on purpose.
Kimberly: Makes sense. And her characters are still very realistic.
Lori: Having read that interview, I think she contrived the plot to fit her political message. So it's more of a political manifesto than a novel.
Bridget: Yeah, I would agree with that.
Kimberly: I've read other reviews that said the same.
Tahleen: I get why she did it, and that's fine, but it's just not my thing.
Tahleen: I read enough that I think I can recommend it or not recommend it to someone if they ask, and that really was my goal.
Bridget: Yeah, same. I powered through for JK, but had it not been her name on the cover, I wouldn't have read it.
Tahleen: I'm impressed; I didn't have the drive to finish just for Rowling.
Lori: Do you have anything to add to why you finished or was it solely because of JK?
Bridget: Well, okay, that's why I picked it back up again. I finished it because I legitimately wanted to. But it took me until about page 200 or 250 to care about finishing it.
Tahleen: That's good.
Kimberly: Good to know!
Lori: And I am so close to 200. But I don't think I care enough to read the 17 pages to get there. It's definitely easy and quick to read, at least for me.
Tahleen: I think Rowling definitely took advantage of the fact that she would sell her book no matter what she wrote; she used that power to write something she legitimately wanted to write, even if hardly anyone would have read it otherwise.
Lori: Good point.
Bridget: Agreed, Tahleen. That's basically what's been floating around in my head but you put it into words.
Kimberly: She has said as much. I've seen a few quotes from her saying that she finally got the chance to write what she wanted, WHEN she wanted to write it and CV was it.
Lori: I think all of us would agree that we picked up the book solely because her name was on the cover.
Lori: I have another topic that is more to satisfy my curiosity. We've hinted a few times at some of the things she said about this book that, at least to me were off-putting, do these comments change your perception of her? For instance, she said that she knew everyone would buy this book no matter what.
Tahleen: I don't think I really had a real perception of her to begin with, to be honest. I know she created Harry Potter, but I don't really follow her otherwise.
Bridget: I mean...maybe it's not the best thing to say out loud. But then again, it shows a lot of—bravery? candidness?—to actually say what everyone was thinking. Should she be falsely modest, or honestly complacent?
Tahleen: Her comments about people buying it are just the truth. Everyone knew it. People have been talking about it for years before she did write the book.
Lori: It seemed downright cocky though.
Kimberly: I've read enough of her interviews, and watched her enough that I already liked and respected her. Her comments didn't change my mind.
Tahleen: Maybe. I don't see it that way though. She had this freedom, and she used it. It paid off. And people did actually like the book.
Bridget: Yeah. If she writes another non-HP book, I imagine she won't be as complacent.
Tahleen: Exactly. This was pretty much her best shot at doing what she did. She'll never have a chance like that again.
Kimberly: True! I think she was just being candid.
Bridget: Lori, I can see where you're coming from that her comments could have changed your perception of her. But like Tahleen said, I didn't have much of an opinion of her personally beforehand, so there's really nothing to change. Her comments were pure human, I think.
Lori: I guess my issue with her is some of the stuff that she says in her interviews. Some of the HP things she said after the fact seemed extremely unnecessary, like Dumbledore being gay. I did not feel that that added to the plot to say it after book 7 came out.
Kimberly: I can totally see your point.
Lori: It felt like more of a publicity thing at that point.
Bridget: Yeah, I hear you there.
Tahleen: I suppose so, but if it's something that was in her head while she was writing maybe she felt like it was something to mention?
Bridget: I actually don't know the circumstances of that. Was she asked, or did she just say it unprovoked?
Kimberly: Someone asked if he had ever married in an interview, and she told them she had always seen him as being gay.
Bridget: Oh. Well, that's okay then, I think.
Lori: I don't know. I just feel like once you send it off to the publisher, your work is done. You can't just throw in extra stuff.
Bridget: Yeah, I agree, Lori. But she was asked about Dumbledore, so I personally appreciate that she gave an honest answer.
Tahleen: I don't think she just threw it in, about Dumbledore.
Bridget: Even though it was sort of "extra."
Lori: I guess the final question that remains to be asked is whether we'll read anything else she writes?
Kimberly: Always. … Uh, didn't mean the pun there.
Bridget: Ha! But I agree, Kimberly. Out of curiosity at the very least.
Lori: I think next time I'll wait. I had a voice in my head saying I should have waited to buy the paperback. But I wanted to read it before I learned too much about it and was influenced. I wish I had listened to myself.
Bridget: Aww. I'm sorry you were so disappointed, Lori.
Lori: I would have been disappointed regardless of who wrote the book because I'm just not a fan of social/class commentaries regardless of who writes them. But maybe disappointed is too harsh. I wouldn't have been interested.
Bridget: That's fair. We've all already said that if it wasn't JK on the cover, we wouldn't have bought it. And I think that goes for a lot of people. (Also, the cover artwork was so boring. What was up with that?)
Kimberly: I thought so too!
Lori: Very boring!
Kimberly: I kept thinking it was a fake, and that when the book came out it would be different.
Lori: OH! Hey, how much did British local politics bog you down? Because I was confused, but willing to remain blissfully confused by it.
Kimberly: I actually find that stuff kinda interesting, so it didn't bother me.
Lori: I don't mean the dynamics. I meant the organization. Is that what you meant?
Bridget: I had no idea what was happening most of the time. But I guess I sort of got it eventually. It's all gone again though. I couldn't tell you much now about the structure. Definitely something my boyfriend would enjoy, but not me.
Kimberly: I kinda meant both. It was different from here, and I was enjoying figuring out how it worked. Google was my friend.
Bridget: Mostly it was the fact that they were using terms I didn't know, so I didn't know who was where in the hierarchy. I was far too lazy to Google.
Lori: I'm with you Bridget. On both counts.
Kimberly: And I'm too much of a geek for stuff like that for my own good.
Bridget: I'm surprised you weren't more into it, then!
Kimberly: I might be once I pick it up again.
Bridget: You should definitely try again if that stuff interests you. SUCH DRAMA.
Kimberly: I have a couple of books I need to read, and then I'm picking it up again. I'll definitely let you know what I think.
Tahleen: Sorry, I sort of spaced there. I don't think I’d read another adult novel from her.
…And at this point our discussion disintegrated into chats about the campaign coverage, what authors we’d like to meet, and other random things, so this is where we’ll end it.
To recap, for those of you who realized early on that this was TL;DR:
We all really only picked up The Casual Vacancy because it was written by J. K. Rowling, and we’re divided on whether we’ll automatically read anything else she writes. We’re more or less agreed on the fact that most of the characters are not very sympathetic, although there were a few we liked, and a few that eventually redeem themselves. We were all a bit put off by the strong language because it seemed rather unnecessary at times, but we’d also like to hear from any Brits out there who think we’re just being oversensitive Americans! Kimberly, at least, plans to go back to The Casual Vacancy once she’s crossed some other books off her list; Tahleen and Lori aren’t so sure it’ll be worth it for them. Bridget is definitely glad she finished it, although she acknowledges that it took her until about halfway into the book to really WANT to finish. If you’d like, you can read Bridget’s spoiler-ific review on her personal book blog.
And now we want to hear from you!! Please keep your comments spoiler-free, as some of us haven’t finished yet but plan to eventually. We appreciate you reading this far, and please feel free to give us feedback on this "chat" format!