A panel of journalists joins Diane for analysis of the week's top international news stories.
After the colossal success of her “Harry Potter” series, J.K. Rowling could have enjoyed an early retirement. But after years of creating a world of wizards and “muggles” for young readers, she felt compelled to try something different for a new audience. Her first novel for adults takes place in the fictional English village of Pagford. It centers around town council member Barry Fairbrother and chronicles the personal and political fallout from his sudden death. And while the book’s setting is far from Hogwarts, its characters grapple with problems familiar to Harry, Ron and Hermione — mortality and the burdens that come with adulthood. Join Diane and her guests for a Readers’ Review of J.K. Rowling’s “The Casual Vacancy.”
- Monica Hesse writer for The Washington Post and author of "Stray."
- Helen Simonson fiction writer and author of "Major Pettigrew's Last Stand."
- Alan Cheuse fiction writer, journalist, and commentator for NPR's All Things Considered.
Read An Excerpt
From “The Casual Vacancy” by J.K. Rowling. Copyright © 2013 by J.K. Rowling. Reprinted by permission of Back Bay Books. All rights reserved.
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. For our December "Readers' Review," J.K. Rowling's first novel for adults set in an idyllic English town. But it's not what it first seems. The author of the "Harry Potter" series tells a decidedly muggle-like tale of residents who form opposing camps after the death of a local parish council member. Here with me to talk about this month's "Readers' Review" of "The Casual Vacancy," by J.K. Rowling, fiction writer Helen Simonson, Alan Cheuse of George Mason University and Monica Hesse of the Washington Post.
MS. DIANE REHMDo join us. 800-433-8850. Send us your email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow us on Facebook or Twitter. And welcome to all of you.
MS. HELEN SIMONSONThank you for having me.
MR. ALAN CHEUSEHi, Diane.
MS. MONICA HESSEI'm so happy to be here. Thank you.
REHMGood to see you all. Helen Simonson, perhaps you can explain the title of this book. "The Casual Vacancy."
SIMONSONWell, "a casual vacancy" is one of those arcane British terms that's so lovely. It refers to a vacancy on the parish council caused by somebody's failure to take up their position, either their failure to show up, or in the case of this book, their sudden death. So, it's sort of a special by-election.
REHMAnd is it a very British book in your thinking?
SIMONSONIt is a very British book, and so it has a whole level of interest for me, because there are lots of British terms in here, references to British food, things that you wonder, sometimes, if an audience in other countries are going to get. For me, it's just a chuckle.
REHMAnd, of course, you as the author of "Major Pettigrew's Last Stand," truly can appreciate this small village where all of this infighting and undercurrent begins. Alan Cheuse, what did you make of J.K. Rowling's book?
CHEUSEI was actually shocked and pleasantly surprised that it's as good as it is. Because I'm not a big fan of the children's books. The only time I've ever read one was, actually a friend of mine read part of a book to his child, and I fell asleep along with the child. I was so bored. So, this was, you know, lively and exciting, and interesting characters.
REHMDid you find it lively and exciting, Monica Hesse?
HESSEI had actually the opposite reaction to Alan. I'm a huge fan of J.K.'s young adult novels, and so when I got my copy of "The Casual Vacancy," I arranged my comforter and my cocoa and everything, everything around me. I thought that I was in for this delicious reading experience, and then I became progressively more disappointed the further I got in the novel.
HESSEYou know, I think that this is a book with beautiful sentences and paragraphs and delightful word play, but it didn't hold up as a whole for me. It seemed like a situation where it worked on a paragraph level, but not as a novel.
REHMMonica Hesse is a writer for The Washington Post. She is author of "Stray," and that is a young adult novel. For those of you who have read, or perhaps are interested in J.K. Rowling's first adult novel, "The Casual Vacancy," do join us at 800-433-8850. Send us an email to email@example.com. Monica, you actually reviewed the book when it first came out in September, 2012. Is this the second time, then, that you've read it?
HESSEThis was, and this was a different reading experience, because when you review a book, sometimes you have only a few hours to read it and then write your review. And it's a frenetic, fast paced experience. So, this time I had a little more time to luxuriate in it, which I thought might make me like it more, but it didn't really.
REHMWhy not? What was it about it that didn't grab you?
HESSEWell, ironically, I thought that one of J.K. Rowling's greatest strengths in her Harry Potter novels was how real she made the fantasy world appear. And inversely, "A Casual Vacancy" is about a real town, but nothing about it rang true to me. It seemed like she was trying too hard.
REHMHow about you, Helen Simonson?
SIMONSONWell, I think that’s somewhat true. I think what's similar to the Harry Potter novels is she does a very good job of making the teenagers and children in the book real. But the adults, she's busy writing up the social comedy. And so, at least in the first half of the book, some of those adults came out a little bit cartoonish. All of them had secret agendas, all of them were mean spirited.
REHMPeople were mean to each other in this book, Alan Cheuse.
CHEUSEEven when they have sex, they're mean to each other.
REHMBut, beyond that, I mean, here you have in the opening chapter of the book, the person who sits on the parish council, and who is highly regarded, respected by everyone in this little village. He drops dead. And immediately, the thinking starts to roil.
CHEUSEIt's almost like a palace novel where the king goes and everybody starts trying to replace him.
REHMYeah. The king is dead, and so how can we maneuver, or what can we do? Now, do you see similarities in this book to the earlier books of "Harry Potter?"
SIMONSONI think when I was reading this, I was trying very hard to take it at its own face and not correlate it with the "Harry Potter" books at all. So, I didn't see that much in the way of connection. As I say, except for her very deep understand of the teenage mind. I think none of us really escape the scars of high school, and perhaps J.K. Rowling did not escape as much as some of the rest of us, because she really seems tuned to how awful it is in those formative teenage years. But I guess the closest thing I could say is perhaps if you took the Dursleys of "Harry Potter" and just wrote about their town, I still don't think it would come close to the horrors of little Pagford.
REHMYeah. Tell me about the kids. What are they like, Alan?
CHEUSEThey seem very American to me in their nastiness, in their desperation, in their addictions, in their sexual desires. And it reminded me of a number of novels by British writers set in London. You know, they sort of ripped the cover off prim and proper British life. And it appealed to me. I thought how these kids are international teenagers.
REHMInteresting. What did you think, Monica, of these kids?
HESSEI thought the kids were much more sympathetic than their parents, and I think that part of the reason I thought that is because the parents are, for the most part, seen as two faced, pretending to be one thing in public, and quite another thing in private. And so, you have the kids, who are the only people in the novel willing to expose their parents' duplicity. And so, in some ways, even though they are messed up and having sex and doing drugs, and nasty little creatures, they're still, in an odd way, the moral compass for the novel, I think. Because they're the ones who are trying to expose the hidden nasty sides of the town.
REHMAnd what about the economic disparities among the kids?
HESSEThat, to me, felt very American. I thought it was interesting when Helen said this seems like a British novel, because to me, it also seemed like "Real Housewives of Orange County" mixed with Honey Boo Boo. You know? It was a real mash up. This is set in a town of tidy white picket fences that is sort of girding itself against the urban sprawl of a poor neighborhood. And so it was -- that, I thought, was universal, to see the struggle between the have and the have nots.
REHMAnd that struggle between the have and the have nots is so clearly delineated with the separation of fields and the other town.
SIMONSONYes, the town of Yarville is hidden behind a hill, along with the housing estate that actually belongs to Pagford, but is low income and is hidden from the town by the same hill. I thought it was wonderful use of the landscape to literally cut off the town of Pagford from anything unpleasant.
REHMAnd what does that actually mean for the people of both towns?
SIMONSONWell, I think for the people of Pagford, they are literally insulated by the landscape, from the reality of life.
REHMAnd think about what happens here in Eaton, right around here in Washington with high walls and people living behind high fences. Alan.
CHEUSEYes. She's got that right. She's got that right. But, you know what I really missed when she described the fields? You mentioned the fields. I would have welcomed a little Hardy, Thomas Hardy landscape here. I mean, she...
REHMA little more description.
CHEUSEYes. A lot more. A lot more, because there's a chance where the kid, you know, the kids roam free in the fields and it's a division between two classes, but it's also inviting in itself. So, there, the book really fell short for me. I was thinking, when the young boy drowned in the river, I thought, ah, a river. Great.
REHMYou thought, there's a river. Ah. You know, it's fascinating, because as you talk about the comparison between American and British, here's a young woman who is cutting herself to relieve the kind of desperation she feels, and it's the only relief she can get. Sadly enough, I tend to think of that as an American dysfunction, if you will, but there it is.
SIMONSONWell, I think you have to understand that in England today, we're not all living in country cottages and wearing our little crocheted sweaters and wellies and reading Edith Nesbit and having a jolly good time. That we have all the same problems that you have in America.
REHMHelen Simonson. She's a fiction writer and the author of "Major Pettigrew's Last Stand." We're talking about J.K. Rowling's first adult novel, "The Casual Vacancy."
REHMAnd here is our first email from Phyllis in Dallas, Texas. She writes, "I absolutely love the Harry Potter books, but I could not read the "Casual Vacancy." I got about 50 pages into it, had to stop reading because it's tone was so mean and its characters were so mean to one another." So the question is, why is J. K. Rowling showing all this meanness to everybody, Alan Cheuse?
CHEUSEI don't know that she wants to write mean. I think she's trying to get at what she takes to be the truth. In a way her design puts her back in the context of say, Balzac who's, you know, trying to write everything that he knows about everyone who lives in Paris in the late -- early 19th century. So this is what she wants to do. She casts a wide net and brings in as many different characters as she possible can within the context of this small village. And she's trying to show us -- it's almost like a bestiary of small town British life.
REHMHelen Simonson, give us a bit of a reading to demonstrate kind of the theme that's set up in this novel.
SIMONSONYeah well, I think J. K. Rowling, like a lot of writers, is trying to do something new, get at the -- get at something truthful. And she has a character, the teenage boy known as Fats, he seems to have a similar philosophy. "The mistake 99 percent of humanity made, as far as Fats could see, was being ashamed of what they were, lying about it, trying to be somebody else. Honesty was Fats currency, his weapon and defense. It frightened people when you were honest. It shocked them.
SIMONSONOther people, Fats had discovered, were mired in embarrassment and pretense, terrified that their truths might leak out. But Fats was attracted by rawness, by everything that was ugly but honest, but the dirty things about which likes of his father felt humiliated and disgusted. Fats thought a lot about Messiahs and pariahs, about men labeled mad or criminal, noble misfits shunned by the sleepy masses. The difficult thing, the glorious thing was to be who you really were, even if that person was cruel or dangerous, particularly if cruel and dangerous.
SIMONSONThere was courage in not disguising the animal you happen to be. On the other hand, you had to avoid pretending to be more of an animal than you were, take that part, start exaggerating or faking and you became just another cubby, his father, just as much of a liar or hypocrite. Authentic and inauthentic were words that Fats used often. Inside his own head they had laser precise meaning for him in the way he applied them to himself and to others."
REHMThink about that reading in terms of Fat's relationship with his own father.
SIMONSONWell, I think to the teenagers in this book, and especially Fats, they're hypersensitive to the hypocrisy of their parents. They see it all so...
REHMBut his father is also mean.
SIMONSONWell, Fats' father is not as mean as Andrew's father, Simon, who's the abusive father.
SIMONSONFats' father, it actually turns out later in the novel, very damaged by an obsessive, compulsive anxiety disorder that may mean that he's detached from his son. And so in the absence of that connection, Fats has had to find himself. He's kind of -- he's on his own. He's funny to me in that his search for the authentic versus the inauthentic mirrors kind of your angry young writer character. And so I actually think J. K. Rowling is sending out writers and herself while at the same time trying to be as mean as possible in this book, to be totally outrageous.
SIMONSONAnd she has said that she was trying to be humorous. I think you have to choose to read this book as funny.
SIMONSONAnd instead of being shocked by the meanness, to imagine the writer saying, how outrageous can I be now? How much can I pile on?
CHEUSEYou know, the large cast of characters presented a problem for me. And it's the adults who really fade away in memory. But the kids, much more memorable, maybe because of what you just described them as, Helen. And as you described them I thought, there is another book that she may have been influenced by. And I realize it's Lord of the Flies. I mean, these kids are reckless and wild and trying to build their own little world in the face of this adult facade that they find themselves living in.
REHMAnd, Monica, you had a spot you wanted to read for us.
HESSESure. I'm going to read a spot that's near the end of the novel, and it's an exchange between Parminder Jawanda, who is the town doctor who is one of the few staunch advocates of this lower-income neighborhood and Howard Mollison who is another town council member who has led the charge to have this lower-income neighborhood demolished from -- or banished from Pagford's jurisdiction. So this is their exchange.
HESSE"And let's face it, said Howard. This is a problem with a simple solution, stop taking the drugs. He turned, smiling and conciliating to Parminder. They call it cold turkey. Isn't that right, Dr. Jawanda? Oh, you think they should take responsibility for their addiction and change their behavior, said Parminder? In a nutshell, yes, before they cost the state any more money. Exact. And you, Parminder said loudly, as the silent eruption engulfed her. Do you know how many tenths of thousands of pounds you, Howard Mollison, have cost the health service because of your total inability to stop gorging yourself?
HESSEA rich red claret stain was spreading up Howard's neck into his cheeks. Do you know how much your bypass cost and your drugs and your long stay in the hospital and the doctor's appointments you take with your asthma and your blood pressure, and the nasty skin rash, which are all caused by your refusal to lose weight? As Parminder's voice became a scream, the other counselors began to protest on Howard's behalf. Shirley was on her feet. Parminder was still shouting, clawing together the papers that had somehow become scattered as she gesticulated.
HESSEWhat about patient confidentiality, shouted Shirley. Outrageous, absolutely outrageous. Parminder was at the door of the hall and striding through it and she heard over her own furious sobs Betty calling for her immediate expulsion from the Council. She was half running away from the hall and she knew that she had done something cataclysmic. And she wanted nothing more than to be swallowed up by the darkness and to disappear forever."
HESSEIt is and that's why to Helen's point of choosing to read this in a humorous way, I think that I found the beginning very funny. And on a sentence level I found much of it very funny. But the novel gets progressively darker as you go through it, much like the Harry Potter books get progressively darker as you progress through them. But by the end of it, it became more and more difficult to find the humor in it. And I wasn't sure that that was intentional on Rowling's part. I felt like she had let it get away from her a little bit, that she had lost the mastery of the story that she had at the beginning.
REHMInteresting. How do you feel about that, Alan?
CHEUSEI think you may be right. I think she's not really aware of this discrepancy between the adolescent characters and the adult characters and how that's going to affect the reader. I think she would expect that each group is as interesting to the reader as they are to her, but she doesn't make the adults that interesting. And so things technically get away from her I think.
SIMONSONYes. I think I felt that on some point -- it was fascinating to me as a writer because at some point when things get very dark in Pagford there comes a point where it can no longer be funny. And so it was interesting to me to figure out where that line was. There's a young character who, for example, gets raped. I don't know that you can come back from rape and be funny. And then there's a drowning. So by the end of the book I was just in tears and I wasn't laughing at all. And I think that's an issue for a novelist who wants to go beyond a simply light humorous book and get at deeper issues. That how do you walk that line between dark humor and absolute tragedy?
REHMWhy do you believe she wanted to write an adult novel?
SIMONSONWell, if I was J. K. Rowling, I would probably never be able to write again, but I think she wanted to get away from Harry Potter and prove herself as a writer in a totally different genre. And I have to give her huge credit for putting herself out there to do that. Because you know with this book coming out that everybody was lined up waiting for the opportunity to get at her. So I think she was very brave.
CHEUSEI think she was brave, but also kind of blind. I mean, this is -- now as you mention it, this is a syndrome that overtakes a lot of best-selling writers. I mean, Harold Robbins, who many people will remember, went to his grave saying, when the Mailers and the Doris Lessings are forgotten, my work will emerge on the top of the pile. And so, she probably does see herself as a serious novelist who had to write all these books for money. And now she's broken out into her real self.
HESSEI'll speak for the young adult author contingent of the listening population. I think that that probably was a very difficult struggle for her to want to be thought of as a serious novelist and to prove that she could. But this is misconception that I think I see frequently when we're discussing writing, that we think that in order to be a serious novelist you have to write a big fat book with death. And it has to be serious and it has to be thought provoking. And it has to deal with these big grand issues when, in fact, I think that what she was doing in Harry Potter was immensely difficult, which was to be funny and to make people laugh and to have something that was engaging and magical.
HESSEAnd so I felt a little bit sorry for her in this instance. If she was trying to prove herself I thought, I think you've already proved that you can do something that's too difficult for many writers.
SIMONSONWell, I don't think I would accuse her of trying to prove herself as a serious novelist. I think she was just trying to do something different. And writers have a hard time doing that. I know Joyce Carol Oates, for example, wanted to have the opportunity to write in all genres and had difficulty persuading her editors to let her write, say, just a women's novel. So I think it was wanting to do something different, more than suddenly become Chekov.
SIMONSONI know I'd like to become Chekov. When all other writers have faded away, I too hope to be on the top of the pile. I don't think it's going to happen.
REHMAll right. Let's go to Raleigh, N.C. Hi, Bob, you're on the air.
BOBOh hi, Diane, and hello everybody.
BOBMy wife read all the Harry Potter books and we've seen all the movies. I've read some of the Harry Potter books and I think that J. K. Rowling is brilliant in tying things together -- in writing her first book and then the last book, just tying all these things together character wise and story wise. And I read -- my wife read "The Casual Vacancy" first. She said, you really ought to read this. But she warned me, she said, it's a little slow at the first. You're not going to like it, but it gets better toward the end.
BOBWell, I agreed with that and it's a bit of a dark book, but I finished it. And we were reading in bed one night and I tossed the book on the bed and I said, well, I said, that's real life. And I think that's what it is. And again, it's not a happy book, but it's...
BOB..and I think that she -- I don't think it's -- someone said that she didn't maybe really know where she was going with this. I think she knew exactly where she was going.
REHMI tend to agree with you on that, Bob. I think that the way this is plotted out and the way it moves toward these final crises had to have been there in her heart and mind, even as she began. And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Let's go now to Bill in Indianapolis. Hi, you're on the air.
BILLHey, Diane. Happy holidays.
REHMHi. Happy holidays.
BILLI have been waiting for this show for two weeks when I saw that you were going to do this book.
BILLI have never read Harry Potter, had no interest in Harry Potter. I heard her on NPR and then saw her for an evening on Charlie Rose. And I was so struck about when she talked about her relationship with her daughter and how this book, in essence, was something that she really thought her daughter should at least have a chance to understand. What it was like for them when they were on public assistance and how lucky they were that they were now in a position where life was very different.
BILLAnd I think that your discussion is great but I think that you guys miss the point when you don't get that this book is really a gift to her daughter and to tell her, look we have had some blessings. But -- and she is very committed also, J. K. Rowling, not to forget how much she was...
REHMWhere she came from, yeah.
BILL...have a safety net for people. And I commend her for what she did. I've gifted this book to probably a dozen people. Almost everybody is moved by it in their relationship to how they see people on the street, homeless, on the roads. I've had numerous people tell me that this book had a fundamental effect on how they look at those people now.
REHMBill, I'm so glad you called with those thoughts. Helen.
SIMONSONWell, yes, I was talking in the Green Room earlier that the New York Times recently had a five-part article on a homeless girl called Dusani (sp?) and her family. And that I had actually gotten confused at one point between what I was reading in the Times and what I was reading in the book because they were so similar in the way overtime, you know, J. K. Rowling teases out -- starts with a poor family and then teases out who they are and why they are, and forces you by the end of the book to have compassion for their situation.
SIMONSONIt's very easy to be a Howard and Shirley Mollison and sit out there in Pagford in your big house and tell people to get off drugs. But it's much harder to understand the difficulties of being poor and trying to overcome drug addiction and other ills.
REHMYou know, it's sort of -- what you've just said makes me think of politics here in Washington today and the homeless and the jobless and those who are on extended unemployment benefits.
SIMONSONYes, and can we mention the cuts to foot stamps, which I think is criminal in this country.
CHEUSEYes, I agree.
REHMAnd what J. K. Rowling is talking about are those who are living literally hand to mouth, Monica.
HESSEAnd I think that it's true that her most sympathetic characters in this book, I would argue, are the people who are the outsiders from the fields. Krystal Wheedon, the high school student who just has a tragic existence, who is caring for her addicted mother and her younger brother. And she's struggling to get out of these circumstances. And the reader sort of sees that she probably won't be able to. So...
REHMShe can't. There's nowhere to go and no one there with an outstretched hand to really lift her.
HESSESo I appreciate the caller's point in saying that this is an important story. But I wouldn't say that we've all missed the point. This might be a story that J. K. Rowling wrote for her daughter but, you know, the moment she chose to publish millions of copies of it, I think that we're allowed to analyze how well it worked.
REHMAnd how -- you know what I love about Readers' Review is that each person comes to any book with a different sensibility, different sensitivity so its meaningfulness to each of us comes from within. There are no rights or wrongs. Short break here. Stay with us. We'll be right back.
REHMAnd I must say I do love what we're hearing from our listeners as we talk about J.K. Rowling's book "The Casual Vacancy." Here's an email from Eric who says he's enjoying today's show, though he's somewhat disappointed with the largely negative reviews of the book. I think you may be perhaps misinterpreting. I think there's lots of positive stuff going on here. He then goes on to say, "I'm probably one of the rare folks who's not read the Harry Potter books." Eric, I'm in your camp.
REHM"I did recently read "The Casual Vacancy," however," and Eric says, "Was surprised by how much I enjoyed it. I like that there was no clear protagonist and that all the characters had a dark side, and furthermore thought some of the insights into what the different characters were thinking or motivated by, for example, at Barry's funeral, was all too real. Additionally, I found the portrayal of the small town very believable." Your reactions, Helen
SIMONSONWell, I'd just like to say the funeral of Barry is perhaps the funniest thing in the entire book. For example, his family has -- his children have decided all the funeral arrangements, and so he has been placed in a wicker casket, which of course is everybody...
REHMA wicker casket and it's sagging, yeah.
SIMONSON...to be horrified. And it's sagging. And so there's all those gaps in the wicker. And then everybody has some agenda as to where they will sit and how they are dressing. And the doctor has come in a sari, and Shirley is horrified and has a whole monologue in her head about how disrespectful that is to their Christian religion, and they would never do that in return. And so all the humor of a small town snobbery is on display in spades at a funeral which I think is one of the best places to do comedy actually.
REHMAnd speaking of Shirley, Alan Cheuse, she sort of sees the whole town with new eyes after finding out about Howard's affair with Maureen. Read for us.
CHEUSEYes, I will. "The familiar well-loved street seemed different, strange. She'd taken a regular inventory of the window she presented to this lovely little world, wife and mother, hospital volunteer, secretary to the parish council, first citizen-ness, and Pagford had been her mirror, reflecting in its polite respect her value and her worth. But the ghost had taken a rubber stamp and smeared it across the pristine service of her life, a revelation that would nullify it all. Her husband was sleeping with his business partner and she never knew."
REHMThat's a tough spot. What do you think, Monica?
HESSEWell, I think that this passage illustrates -- I think that this passage illustrates one of the -- one of the things that I thought was actually a subtle theme throughout the novel, which is how different many of these people are, but how interdependent they are, and how they each define themselves based on their positions and their roles within this community to the other people. So Shirley is not a very likeable character, but you in this instance feel sorry for her because she's built her life on these roles that she feels that she has, in the same way that Krystal Weedon has built her life on being the loud mouthed poor student who was bused into Pagford.
HESSESo I think that that's a really interesting message is to ask these questions of how we can continue to interact and get along and be reflected back in others' eyes.
REHMThere is actual really unkind hazing in this novel of young people who perhaps don't quite conform to their contemporary ideals, Helen.
SIMONSONWell, this was the most uncomfortable part of reading the book for me, because it brought back memories of many trips on the school bus myself, and the school bullies and how dreadful that can be. The point in this novel that brought me to my knees is when Fats who is a very verbal and articulate boy, and for me was -- I was kind of following him. He was my protagonist. And then he sits behind a girl in class and he whispers as if from a book talking about hermaphrodites and her hirsutism and essentially saying she's hairy hermaphrodite. And I put the book down.
SIMONSONThat literally brought me to my knees. It was as if I was 15 again and hearing all the people in school being mean to each other. So I think that J.K. Rowling and I went to similar comprehensive schools it seems in England, and I just that was absolutely dreadful. And for me it felt like it was a betrayal because the character I had been following turned out to be so mean I couldn't follow him anymore. But children are wicked, and we should learn from that. As adults we cover ourselves in these polite hypocrisies, but children, they are "Lord of the Flies," they are stripped away.
CHEUSERevelation dawned upon me, you know, particularly with his character, "Lord of the Flies."
REHMAll right. To Larissa in Charlotte, N.C. Hi there.
LARISSAHi there, Diane. Thanks for taking my call.
LARISSAI read the book. I really liked it. I have never read "Harry Potter." To me there was a little bit of Holden Caulfield from "Catcher in the Rye" in a few of the characters, more of a modern day twist on that character. And I'm listening to your guests talk about how mean everyone is, and, yes, they are mean, but that's real life. I've served on several community boards and organizations and those people really exist. Maybe not to the extent, you know, of all of them on one board like was in this book, but they really exist.
LARISSAAnd I think I echo what a lot of your callers have said. I think it rightly depicts the divide between rich and poor. And it's not just American. I've heard that comment too. I have a lot of friends and experience in France, and I can tell you community boards in France have the same people. I mean, it's a universal book. It’s not just kids in the United States. It's -- definitely you can find this anywhere. And I think she did well. I didn't like the detective novel she wrote as a follow-up under a pseudonym, but for my two first J.K. Rowling books, I think this was a good one.
REHMThanks for calling, Larissa. And, you know, it's interesting because we had an email from Diane, who said, "I liked this book. I wonder if it would have been better received under a pseudonym." Monica.
HESSEI think that's -- I think that's a difficult question to answer. I think the first question to ask is whether this would've been published if it had been written under a pseudonym, the market for literary fiction being as difficult and competitive as it is. I do think that once you know that J.K. Rowling became famous because she was writing fantastical adventures about Quiddich and robes, that it was hard to read this novel and not wonder when someone was going to pull out a wand. So I'm not surprised that she chose to write her second novel after "Casual Vacancy" using a pseudonym to just liberate herself from all of the comparisons.
REHMAnd another email from Diane. She says, "As I read the book, I kept asking myself if there were any characters I cared about. And for a long time there weren't. Then I realized there was. It was Krystal, the girl with such a difficult life. She was a hero in her devotion to her little brother.
CHEUSEI certainly agree. Krystal was the character who really stands out as a fully rounded and sympathetic creature who is going to her doom whether she wants to or not.
REHMBoy, she has a tough life.
CHEUSEYes, some family life.
REHMSome family. All right. And to David in Fort Worth, Texas. Hi there.
DAVIDHi, Diane, thanks for taking my call.
DAVIDWell, I think we've already touched on a lot of what I was going to ask. We see a lot of artists go from various genres, if you will, a country music guy going to rock and roll, or a comedian trying to act in a drama. The level of expectation that Rowling has built in their readers with the success of "Harry Potter" has really set the standard very, very high. And not to degrade the book that she's written, but it doesn't speak to the perceptions or stereotypes people have about the author that when they cross a genre, that we're automatically skeptical or have a different level of expectation regardless of the true quality of the work that they've published.
REHMI think that's a good point, David. Helen, what do you think?
SIMONSONYeah, I think that's very true. It's as difficult for writers as it is for actors not to get pigeonholed. And, you know, publishing contracts are rare and hard to come by, and so if you do something well once, and your editor wants you to do it again, it's difficult not to. And also if you'd like to pay your rent, you know, writing is -- outside of J.K. Rowling, writing is not always a lucrative career, and people are willing to struggle for their art. And so it is difficult to break out. I'd just like add by the way that many of your callers are saying they haven't read "Harry Potter." This is not some young adult novel you can skip. I suggest that everybody read it. It is a classic up there with C.S. Lewis' "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe." So at least...
SIMONSON...read the first one which will be an endless classic.
REHMHere's a tweet, "Have any of your guests read "Cuckoo's Calling" Rowling's recent thriller written under a pseudonym? How would they compare it to "The Casual Vacancy"? Monica.
HESSEI've read it. And I would say that comparing it to "The Casual Vacancy" is as different as comparing "The Casual Vacancy" to the "Harry Potter" books. It's a crime thrilled. It's fast paced, and it definitely fits very well within the genre of popular crime fiction, so...
REHMHow do you account for the fact that until her identity was disclosed the book went nowhere?
HESSEI would probably account for that by saying that 90 percent of the books that are published go nowhere. It's just so immensely difficult to make a mark, especially when you're writing in a genre that's already filled with Patricia Cornwells or with Catherine Coulters or with all of the -- all of the famous crime novelists, that it actually -- it sold respectably for a first novel. It just didn't go gangbusters the way that it did once her name was revealed.
REHMAs a writer for The Washington Post, do you have any sort of cynical view that it was actually she who might have disclosed her own identity of -- as the author of that book? Or do you believe that it was leaked by someone out there?
HESSEI feel very torn. I could see easily her publisher saying, it's killing us that this book isn't selling well, please just tell them your name and then everyone will be able to read this book. So I could see that happening. On the other hand, as we've already said, she didn't need to keep writing books. She had enough -- she had enough resources and money that she could retire and drink Mai Tais on the beach for the rest of her life. So I think at this point she can't be doing it for the publicity. She can't possibly get any more famous. So it might...
HESSEOr rich. So it might very well just be that she enjoys writing and the audience isn't so important to her anymore.
CHEUSEYes. In that rap music that comes at the funeral at the end where the good girl gone bad, take three, action, no clouds in my storms, let it rain, I hydroplane into fame. Coming down with the Dow Jones. That's how she may see herself.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Let's see. To Kathleen in Sterling, Va. Hi there.
KATHLEENHi, Diane. How are you doing?
REHMI'm fine, thanks.
KATHLEENWhat I want to say is, first of all, I did read the "Harry Potter" books, and I really enjoyed them. I read all of them. And I could not get through her book. I just couldn't. And I was -- and I do read other kinds of books. But what I was really impressed with was that I felt if she -- she has such a good perception of metaphysics, only she's taken it into the fantasy.
KATHLEENAnd if she had written a book about the real ways in which intuition and metaphysical phenomena come to people who have real gifts of the spirit, I think it would've been a much better book or a much better way for her to write. Because for the most part what we see in movies and TV, it's not written by people who've had metaphysical experiences. So I was wondering what your panel thought about that.
REHMI'm not sure. Anybody have a comment here? Monica.
HESSEI'll read anything with J.K. Rowling's byline on it, so when she writes that metaphysical book, I will be the first in line to buy it.
REHMGood for you. And finally to Alan in Baltimore, Md., you're on the air.
ALANYeah. I've read I think all but the last of the Potter series. And the thing I think you -- I don't hear when you talk about or mention them in the new book, I haven't read the new book, is that what Potter did -- I mean, what Rowling's did in the Potter books was, one, she created a very complex society full of, you know, all of the machinations of adults and, you know, and the world, and then she put into it a group of children.
ALANAnd you watched through the books how the children matured, and, you know, of the interactions. And I think that the Potter series while is a massive and big undertaking of trying to show the reality of the world, and so, you know, it's difficult to, you know, to come to the same thing. And of course you have expectations from having read the originals.
REHMTrue. Quite true. Alan, thanks for calling. And, you know, in a sense that's what she's done here. Perhaps with a different cast of characters in a different setting, but she's taken as we have all noted a group of people where perhaps the children are more honest and straightforward and realistic about their world than are the adults. So frankly this conversation has given me a different sense of the book. I read it in one way, and I think I'm thinking about it somewhat differently now. It's a book I would recommend, but I would say you'll have to sort of find your own way through it. The book is called of course "The Casual Vacancy" by J.K. Rowling.
REHMAnd for next month's Readers' Review "The Grapes of Wrath" by John Steinbeck, Published almost 75 years ago, the story of a family's migration from Dust Bowl, Okla. to California. That's going to be on Wednesday, January 22nd. John Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath." Helen Simonson, Alan Cheuse, Monica Hesse, thank you all.
CHEUSEThank you, Diane.
REHMAnd thanks for listening all. I'm Diane Rehm.
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