Let’s get this out of the way—if I hypothetically travelled back in time back to about late 2007/2008 and told myself that the next JK Rowling book was going to be a satirical adult novel about British politics and teen angst and midlife crisis and not only utilizes Rihanna’s “Umbrella” as a theme for two characters, but also manages to make that song a tear-jerker and I would enjoy the hell out of it…I would have probably guessed that I was flying on something chemical. Yes, coming from the perspective of a long-time Harry Potter reader and even knowing that this was going to be an adult book, it’s a head trip to see Rowling casually toss around cuss words and frank discussions about sex (to be fair, it’s a lot better than implying the ‘monster in the chest’) and yes, namedropping and using a Rihanna song. It should not work. But it does, and Rowling does it oh so well.So my rule of thumb is this: Do not invoke Potter. Put it out of your head. Do not mention it; don’t even think about it. This is not that book. What The Casual Vacancy IS, in actuality, a heart-breaking novel about community and our neighborly relationships and how even though people try to help one another, they end up alienating the ones they love the most. Aside from a small handful of characters, I felt for every citizen of Pagford who has to grapple with the death of Barry Fairbrother and the resulting political fallout from it. And I also have to say this about The Casual Vacancy: I normally despise these kind of books, and the only reason I was initially interested in reading it all was “OMG JK ROWLING SQUEE.” The fact that I enjoyed it, and felt for these characters, as opposed to reading a Jonathan Franzen book is a testament to how fantastic a writer Rowling is. (Literary pretension haters to the leeeeft!) For those of us who are unfamiliar with British politics, Rowling does explain the ins and outs of the system and precisely why the empty council seat is so important. And it is a very political book—Rowling has never really been subtle about her messages, so it’s a little unsurprising to see various anvils dropping whenever the talk turns political. It also feels like a very personal book, like this is the story that she’s really wanted to write in the last fifteen or so years. The main crux of the story isn’t Barry Fairbrother’s passing, although it plays a significant role by kickstarting the events. This is actually a grand tragedy of one family that’s been condemned by the traditional residents of Pagford. As I mentioned above, I really don’t like this type of book. I don’t like stories where the main conflict are adults realizing that they don’t have the perfect life and that they’re bored and oh look middle aged white people problems. And had the book been told entirely from adults’ perspectives I probably would have this problem. In fact, two of the characters I liked the least, Gavin Hughes and Samantha Mollison, were precisely this kind of adult. Gavin tries to comfort and then make a move on the now-widowed Mary Fairbrother. Samantha Mollison is a bored rich housewife who I wanted to slap.But I think the reason I loved this is that Rowling does illustrate how complex families are and even when they’re broken and dysfunctional, they still manage to love one another. And this is done brilliantly by setting four teenagers at the heart of the plot. Yes, most of these kids are selfish in their motives by sabotaging their parents’ bids at the town council, but God, I feel for them. Andrew, Sukhvinder and Gaia in particular (oh god Sukhvinder) because they’re so alienated and lonely. And this what I’ve always loved about Rowling’s writing; that she can take any loathsome character and make you feel at least a shred of sympathy for them. And that is the brilliance of the characters in this book. Even the Mollisons, especially Howard and Shirley, who are loathsome and detestable, and yet you do feel sorry for them.And Krystal Weedon. God. Krystal is the true star of this book, and the main center of tragedy. You so want to root for her to get out of her mother’s house and for her and her brother to move on and be happy. I won’t spoil what happens, but let’s just leave it at it’s a sucker-punch that should be expected from Rowling, but I got so wrapped up in everything that I wanted there to be a happy ending for those involved.Aside from the info-dump of the history of the Fields and the towns of Yarvil and Pagford, the writing is solid. It’s still cheeky, but unlike the whimsy that those of us are used to reading from her, the style of The Casual Vacancy is biting and sharp. There’s still some awkward turns of phrases, but it’s still fantastic. And to note (yes, I know, I can’t get over this), the use of the Rihanna song. A lot of people would criticize Rowling for using it, it dates the book, etc. But she makes it a tearjerker, which is a feat because I’ve rarely seen pop songs worked in so well to a book.There’s a very annoying tendency of fans and critics of ‘literature’ to deride children’s novelists, especially those who turn to writing for adults. For those of you going to compare The Casual Vacancy to the Potter series, I would recommend to either turn away from this book entirely or be willing to take The Casual Vacancy on its own merits. Rowling has already proven that she’s a fantastic storyteller, and while The Casual Vacancy is not a mind-blowing piece of fiction, it does prove that Rowling easily holds her own against the critical darlings while retaining her own wit and crafting. This is definitely a must-read and one worth checking out. In conclusion, Alan Rickman.