I thought my mom's description of it was pretty apt. She said: The nicest guy in the book dies in the prolog [sic]. [Kind of not really a spoiler, but better safe than sorry]The second person I had hope for dies in the end. At this point (page 405), I'm wondering which character she had hope for, because I don't have hope for any of them.
I don't know if I have the stamina, but having finished the book, I suspect that I won't be able to sleep until I write this out, so here goes:
I remember reading a Rowling interview at one point (before Harry Potter was finished, I think) and her saying (I paraphrase), "Most people in the world are decent." Today, my retroactive response to that is, "Really? Then how come you didn't put any decent people in your new book?" The characters were all so irredeemably flawed and generally unlikeable (although occasionally some of them were somewhat sympathetic, but then they'd usually do something utterly loathesome and ruin it) that, on average, the amount of caring and concern I had for any of them was less than one percent.
I also remember watching an interview shortly before CasVac came out (I'm just going to call it that from now on) and Rowling asked the interviewer if she had cried upon completing the book. When the interviewer said yes, Rowling replied (and I paraphrase): "I'm not going to say 'good,' but I would have nothing to say to someone who didn't cry at the end of this book." At that point, having already read some unfavorable reviews, I was a little afraid to read it at all, for fear that I wouldn't cry and then I'd have to live with the knowledge of not having lived up to her (abstract, hypothetical) expectations. At this point I no longer care, because the fact of the matter is that I'm disappointed in her, and even if she had nothing to say to me, I have plenty that I would like to say to her.1
I don't fault her at all for wanting to do something different from Harry Potter. I respect the wish not to be pigeonholed because I know how frustrating it can be for the creative mind to be expected to constantly reinvent the wheel. Moreover, I understand about wanting to comment on social issues, and I applaud Rowling for the attempt, but perhaps a little more rhetorical consideration would have been called for. You can do a brilliant social commentary, but if it's couched in a novel that's by turns mind-numbingly dull and soul-crushingly depressing, your audience may not have the requisite internal organs (heart and stomach) to finish it, and then your message goes unheard.2
Also, maybe it's a good idea to pick your battles and not try to do too much in one book ... less is more, as they say. When I was about halfway through the book, it started to seem to me that Rowling had just made a list of all the misfortunes that can befall an individual and/or community and kept shoehorning them into the novel until she had them all checked off the list. ("Death? Check. Drugs? Check. Child abuse/neglect? Check. Domestic violence? Check. Marital infidelity? Check. Severe acne? Check...") To be honest, it started to feel a little artificial after a while, not organic to the narrative. It gets to the point where I feel like I'm being manipulated, and even though I trust that she has good intentions, I don't like that feeling nevertheless. She dealt with social issues in Harry Potter too, and I feel that examining them through the lens of fantasy, as metaphors to be interpreted, was much more subtle and therefore much more effective.3
I know that it's not fair to compare CasVac to Harry Potter: Different audiences, different genres, etc. But the thing that bothers me the most about CasVac is that it seems to me like a novel that any number of authors COULD have written. Whereas Harry Potter was so original, so vibrant, and so inventive that it could only have come from a singular creative mind. Reading CasVac, I missed her warmth and her wit, I missed her clever wordplay, I missed her quirky but loveable characters, and I missed the overall joy of the Harry Potter journey, even when it took us into dangerous and upsetting territory. In trying to differentiate CasVac from the world of Harry Potter, I feel that Rowling's greatest writing strengths were underemployed, that she essentially muted her own unique writer's voice. That's what really makes me want to cry.
If CasVac had been her first novel, I can imagine it doing moderately well. I can imagine it being de rigueur with book clubs for a while. I can easily imagine Oprah giving it a favorable notice. But for me, with the knowledge that Rowling is capable of so much more, I can only be disappointed in it.
I once said I would follow Rowling anywhere. With regret, I must amend that. From now on, I will be very hesitant about following her into the Muggle world, and/or into the realm of literary fiction.
1That's not to say I didn't cry. There were tears, and there was some choking up, but it was nothing like the effect produced by Harry going into the forest toward the end of Deathly Hallows, for example.
2I don't understand how CasVac got billed as a black comedy. Comedy? Name one comedic thing that happens in the whole book. Oh, maybe I smiled a little bit at one of the teenage boys (don't remember which one) snarking at his oafish father (they both had oafish fathers, so that's no help), detecting therein a pathetically faint echo of Harry mouthing off to Uncle Vernon....You know what? I take that back: "Over-the-Shoulder Boulder Holders" is a funny joke. So there is one comedic element to the novel. I stand corrected.
3I also feel that CasVac would have been a much tighter and probably more effective narrative if she had focused on just a few protagonists rather than the entire frickin' town.