I had low expectations for this book for a number of reasons. As a fan of JKR's Potter books, I knew that anything not-Potter would inevitably feel like something of a letdown. For example, any time poor Patricia Cornwell writes any non-Scarpetta book, she gets roasted by her Scarpetta fans. Also, the reviews for this book were generally poor. Although my taste differs significantly from that of professional book snobs, um, *reviewers*, I find the aggregate user reviews on Goodreads and Audible to be generally in the ballpark. Finally, the reviews I read generally indicated that this book was dark and grim, with a downer of an ending. Had I not enjoyed the Potter world JKR built so much, I probably wouldn't have read this book at all.
Curiously, I had just been listening to Peyton Place on audio, and couldn't help but mentally compare the two. They are similar in theme - both are about the sordid realities hiding behind a small town's pretty facade, including the sort of small-town class politics and power struggles where the successful and unsympathetic fight with the successful and sympathetic over the town's civic responsibility to their "undeserving poor", as Alfred P Doolittle would say. I had the same difficulties at the start of the story, too. So many characters are introduced so rapidly that I simply couldn’t keep track of them all. This is a uniquely audio problem, because in a paper format, I’d be able to flip back and forth to remind myself what each character had been up to previously, until all the dots start connecting and the individual storylines come together.
I suppose the comparison to the Potter books is inevitable, but JKR is successful in repeating and improving on one of the things I loved about those books. The huge cast of characters is wonderfully drawn. Each character is unique, and each character is flawed in some way, and stays true to itself throughout the story arc. What she has improved upon in this adult book is that there is no clear division between the “good” characters and the “bad” characters. Even her most unlikeable characters have some positive qualities (or at least sympathetic ones, given their eventually revealed histories and situations), and we understand how those positive and negative qualities drive their actions. The characters come from all walks of life and all situations, from the congenitally wealthy to middle class to children of heroin addicts. Had the children’s books been written this way, I wouldn’t have wondered where the inhabitants of Knockturn Alley went to school, because they obviously weren’t at Hogwarts.
Many reviewers complained that the ending was too grim, but I have to disagree. There is tragedy at the end, but many characters have learned and grown from their experiences to varying degrees, and there is genuine hope for some at the end.
This is very much a character-driven story, to the degree that there seems to be very little plot at all. Halfway through the book, though I was enjoying the characters, I wondered if there was a point to the story. At the end, I can see the point. But anyone who prefers a story with some action driving toward a particular end will not be happy with this story. It’s really just about people and how they behave and think and interact with one another. It’s about how attitudes and prejudices create the kind of society we live in.
As I mentioned, I listened to this on audio. Tom Hollander read the story and did a fantastic job. Although he doesn’t attempt to create a unique voice for each character – that would have been nearly impossible with the number of characters – he read with feeling and I was easily able to distinguish one character’s speech from another. I enjoyed this very much, and may even possibly listen to it again sometime.