J.K. Rowling’s place in the pantheon of famous authors is pretty secure at this point: As the creator of the Harry Potter series, she conjured a character and a universe beloved by millions of children (and adults) all over the world. The books have sold more than 450 million copies, been translated into 70 languages, and turned the single mom into a superstar. The books so completely dominated the New York Times best-seller list that the paper created a separate list of children’s best-sellers just to give other books a chance. Now Rowling has written a new non-magical novel for adults, the first test of whether her career can expand beyond the Potter universe. What does it mean for her that the first reviews are terrible?
The Casual Vacancy won’t be officially released until tomorrow, but Sherryl Connelly of the New York Daily News snagged an early copy. Her review is brutal.
Rowling’s strength was never her prose. It was her ability to create unforgettable characters and weave stories that held us captive. The magic simply isn’t there in “The Casual Vacancy.” Indeed, the spell has been broken.
The book about a small town in England that moves to separate itself from a nearby low-income housing project, a plot that Connelly says “has the ready appeal of reading minutes from a planning board.” The book is juiced up by lots of gratuitous sex, foul language, a rape, and a heroin addict mom. Even kinder early reviewers haven’t been huge fans.
Rowling didn’t have to keep writing. She’s made plenty of money, and her fame is secure. The Casual Vacancy is a risk, so one level the book is an admirable product, even if it’s not actually a readable one. And Rowling seems to be bracing herself for negative reactions. “The worst that can happen is that everyone says, ‘Well, that was dreadful, she should have stuck to writing for kids’ and I can take that,” she told the Guardian this weekend. “So, yeah, I’ll put it out there, and if everyone says, ‘Well, that’s shockingly bad – back to wizards with you’, then obviously I won’t be throwing a party. But I will live. I will live.”
Rowling’s publisher is printing 2 million copies of the book, and in terms of promotion and attention, it’s certainly one of the biggest releases of the fall. The question is whether it’s good enough to turn Harry Potter fans into J.K. Rowling fans.