Brief Background: The small country town of Pagford is shocked when Parish Councillor and well known townsman Barry Fairbrother suddenly dies of an aneurysm. In his absence, a seat on the local council is vacated and a race to fill it ensues between the factions concerned with social welfare, and those who want to see the local estate (full of struggling individuals mostly on public welfare) cut off from the district. The novel is written from many different perspectives, each weaving stories linked with the character's social class including drug abuse, unhappy marriages, loneliness and friendship.
What I Liked:
Character development and POV: Whether I'm slightly biased by my love of Harry Potter and my childhood spent in a world created by the words of J.K Rowling or not, there is no denying that this author has considerable talent in character development. That talent isn't wasted here - with a plethora of flawed and interesting characters on display, and almost all mentioned being given a point of view at some stage. The way Rowling uses emotive language and descriptive prose to weave seamlessly between character's points of view is uncanny - it was changing frequently within scenes and chapters, and yet it was never convoluted and rarely confusing. The "voice" of each character was markedly different, and by the end, as a reader I felt as if I really knew the fictional people from Pagford, even if I'd known them but 500 pages.
Exploration of themes - child/parent relationships and marital relationships: One thing Rowling managed to convey wholeheartedly here, is that despite many of the characters sharing similar family lives and relationships, each were unhappy in different ways, each struggled with different aspects of coming-of-age, and each resolved their issues very differently. For some characters, it was the varied moral values which kept relationships strained. For others, it was the pretense of a happy, content life, upset with the revelation of dark secrets. For some couples, the resolution was to break up, and for others it was to forgive and forget. It was a constant reminder that no matter how things appear, behind closed doors are difficulties that we may not comprehend.
Social setting: Despite the picturesque notion of Pagford with which the reader is first greeted, the culmination of social tensions and the development of characters with varied social backgrounds provides the backdrop for class warfare and the realization of themes of iniquity and unfairness, elitism and narrow-mindedness. The struggles of the Fields are central to the book, and underpin many of the tensions within families, between characters and major themes.
What I didn't Like:
Slow pacing: Particularly at the start of the novel, the slow pacing made it difficult to get into. Of course, I was hooked on Rowling's writing by 50 pages in, but even with the death of Barry within the very first portion of the book, it was still slow moving. I think my eagerness to get my fill of JKR meant I could overlook this and persevere, but I think for some less tolerant readers, it may mean the difference between reading this gem and not.
Descriptive language: Although the literary devices utilized by the author are stunning, her writing does have, at times, a tendency to focus on finer points of setting or character and become somewhat convoluted. Adding to the problem of slow pacing, I think this book perhaps could have been written just as effectively with 100 less pages, simply due to occasional lapses into descriptive scenes where very little happened. However, I am inclined to add this also to a positive, because without these asides the depth of character may not have been reached.
I loved this book - just shy of five stars for me, I think it was an excellent introduction into the adult genre by J.K Rowling, and once I got really into it, I couldn't put it down.