Praise for THE CASUAL VACANCY: "I had come under the spell of a great novel....A big, ambitious, brilliant, profane, funny, deeply upsetting and magnificently eloquent novel of contemporary England, rich with literary intelligence....This … see full wiki
"Adult" is a funny adjective. Does it mean "acting like an adult" or "things that adults do"? Which definition applies, for example, to the terms "adult book store" or "adult film industry"?
Likewise, adults by the millions have read and loved Rowling's Harry Potter series, in part because, in addition to telling a good story, it treated its young subjects (and intended reading audience) like adults--with an expectation of respect and intelligence on the part of the author that was returned by its readers of all ages. Then by this standard is "The Casual Vacancy" Rowling's first "adult fiction"?
Another reason millions of adults read Harry Potter is that the stories, despite the veneer of magic vs muggles, is really about learning to think and act independently and intelligently--like, well, adults. The same question applies: Then by this standard is "The Casual Vacancy" Rowling's first "adult fiction"?
After reading Casual Vacancy, I can say the answer is simply No to both questions. The subject matter may be more "adult"--with sex, work pressures, health issues, bad life choices, and bad language abounding, but the neither the adults nor the young people here act very intelligently at all. The plot can be summarized succinctly: A small West British village city council is left with an empty seat in mid-term (a "casual vacancy" is the term applied to both the situation and the novel) because of the sudden and tragic death of a well-loved member of the community. A special election is called to fill the seat, which is hotly contested because of questions the council will soon decide on hard spending cuts and boundary issues that will affect the once-cloistered life of small-town Pagford.
Against this backdrop, the adults of Pagford act badly, as we see those work pressures, health issues, and bad life choices I mentioned earlier being worked out in the life of the community. To Rowling's credit, the children of the adults, most of them in high school or college, act just as badly--there is no heroic Harry, Hermione, or Ron Weasley here, which would have pulled this story's punches and left the reader feeling cheated.
Are things really this bad in contemporary UK life? There certainly seems no sense of optimism, enjoyment of life, hope for progress, satisfaction with work and family, or even a sense of duty in Pagford to endure those bad times in family and finances we all suffer. Is this just Rowling's reaction to wanting to get out what she couldn't say in the seven books of Potter? Or is it her overreaction to prove that she can write "adult" fiction? The latter is possible, because I've observed this same tendency in Daniel Handler's (aka Lemony Snicket's) fiction written for adults.
But Rowling does know how to tell a story, and move a plot along, so Casual Vacancy keeps your interest the whole way through. I'll be intrigued to see where she takes her writing talents next. Her comfort zone, and her readers', may take her back to her first success. Watching the Potter characters grow up in an increasingly muggle world and learn to deal with their, yes, adult problems as the magic fades would certainly be interesting.