Coming from Rowling's Harry Potter series to her first book for adults, I had not anticipated how much it would remind me of the novels of Jane Austen. Austen famously worked with a small canvas, focusing on the foibles and concerns of residents of small and insular communities. Rowling does the same. If one imagines Austen transplanted to the present, freed from any pressure to adhere to romantic conventions, and urged to give reign to all her darker and more cynical impulses, we might have something like this novel.
To be sure, the Harry Potter series does showcase Rowling's impressive ability to paint compelling and unflattering portraits. But in those books, characters like Cornelius Fudge and the wonderfully detestable Dolores Umbridge act as antagonists or foils for likable and admirable characters. In A Casual Vacancy, they comprise most, if not all, of the human landscape. One's response to almost every character is essentially: “My God, I hope I'm not like that.”
Some reviews have stated that the only likable or admirable character in this book is the man who dies at its beginning, and whose death occasions the entire plot. I would qualify this statement in two ways. First, there are a couple of other characters who do worthwhile jobs as best they can, against discouraging odds. However, even these characters are sufficiently flawed and foolish in various aspects of their personal lives as to prevent the reader from wishing to identify with them. Second, this limitation extends to some extent to the soon-departed Barry Fairbrother. While there are reasons (starting with the character's unsubtle name) to believe that we are intended to side with him in the dispute over Pagford's responsibility for the Fields housing project, his view of that project and of certain of its residents could be fairly characterized as somewhat one-sided and optimistic. It is even clearer that his tireless advocacy leads him to neglect aspects of his family life.
At one point, Rowling has a character recall the W.B. Yeats line, “A pity beyond all telling/ is hid at the heart of love.” For much of the book, one might question whether Rowling feels that pity. In the end, I was more or less persuaded that she does. She ultimately succeeds in making the reader care, to a varying extent, about the fates of these deeply flawed characters. The book is thus eventually moving, rather than merely disheartening.