NOTE: If you cannot get past the fact that authors are people and don't have to write the same stuff over and over again, don't read this book and don't read this review. If you can separate Harry and Jo, then READ THIS BOOK.
I understand if you can't do that. Harry Potter also very much shaped my childhood. I wept openly all through the second half of the last book and the last movie (even though the movie wasn't actually that good except that it symbolized the ending of an era). Harry will always have the most special of places in my literary heart. Having said that, I made a conscious effort to put aside my associations with Harry and Rowling in order to give this book a fair shake. I didn't want to read this book just because Rowling wrote it. I wanted to see what she could do, yes, but honestly it was the type of book I thought I'd enjoy. I love a good, sleepy, character-driven novel. Obviously, since I am a huge Dickens fan. He does nothing other than giant, sleepy, character-driven novels mired in the ordinary. AND I LOVE THAT. So, I was curious. I was able to look past HP and try something without the shackles of the beautiful world of magic around my intellectual ankles. I am not trying to sound righteous or snobby. I am usually not able to separate authors and their work. For some odd reason, it worked this time. If you can't do it or don't think you can, there's no shame. This was a fantastic book, but there are lots of fantastic books extremely worth your time. This doesn't have to be one of them. However, if you can work through it (and the first 300 pages), then this is a book very much worth your time.
I sincerely enjoyed it. This book honestly shows what a brilliant writer Rowling is. It was a gritty, realistic, character-driven portrayal of the black and dubious goings-on in a tiny British town. Nothing was sugar-coated. Another reviewer pointed out that it's not so much gritty as it just is starkly realistic. Right, again. It's just that reality is so painfully grimy when you look beneath the sheen of the surface reflected back to us in cheerily false commercialism. Also, if you are not a fan of books which are mainly based on characters and not on plot action, put this one back. It is plodding for quite a while, but if you stick with it you are rewarded.
The setting up takes about 300 pages or so. Things all weave together seamlessly, though, at the end of the book. Like HP, everything has its proper place. Everything makes sense and there is nothing frivolous in Rowling's work. She does not place words there without meaning. It really reinforces why I prefer novels written by people who have actual purpose and talent, rather than drivel. As much as drivel can be fluffily entertaining, as much as it can be exciting, at its root it has no substance. Reading fluff novels is much like eating fluff. It is satisfying at the time, but you will feel rather disgusting in about a half an hour. The high of the rush will end, and you feel dirty and empty. When you eat a real meal or read a worthwhile book, you relish the savory and sweet flavors, you take your time, and you are satisfied long after the meal has passed. I found this book to be a proper meal, rather than a sugary snack.
Gritty and hard-hitting though they may be, Rowling's character depictions are insightful. She manages to get at the root of people's unhappiness, and the consequences the actions of unhappy people can reap. This book is paradoxically about the reaping of what some people had sown, but also about some situations which feel virtually inescapable. Although all of the characters struck home for me, shadows of people I have known, one in particular felt uncomfortably familiar: Krystal Weedon. How many girls did I know growing up who had home lives bordering on her own? How many have I known since who have either escaped from horrible fates or else were hopelessly enmeshed by them, never to emerge? Krystal Weedon aside, every character seemed laced with reality, and I could see faces of people I knew in each and every one of them. Like I said, some of them were disconcertingly life-like. It made the plot all the more believable, and I felt very much so that Pagford was a real place and that these characters were merely put to page by Rowling, instead of total creations by her.
Like I said, however, this book is not a page turner. Rowling, ultimately, is a dangler. She lets slip tiny pieces of information, tantalizing you with the hope of some big, juicy secret, some crucial bit of information that will let loose your gossipy imagination. Be honest, you were hoping for that too. But she continues to merely dangle. She keeps you in for the long haul. It's worth it. If you stick with it, you will be amply rewarded. I read the last hundred pages at a sprint. Those last hundred flew by as I was completely submerged in the story. The twists and turns at the end were compelling and horrifying.
All in all, I would sincerely recommend this book for people who like a good character-based read, and for people who can look beyond the world of Harry Potter into a completely different story by a talented author. Rowling is always worth reading.