So I’ll do my best to review this one without spoilers, although if you still intend to read the book, you may want to stop here to be safe.
Even after a good night’s sleep, I still think this book was the best of the series. When I evaluate a book, I focus on three things: plot, prose, and characters. I’ve always thought Rowling excelled at prose – more on that in a moment – which propelled the first two books through some fairly simple plots and characters that were a little one-dimensional. Whether it was part of a plan or just Rowling’s growth as a writer, her plots became significantly more involved, with multiple subplots and a number of additional characters getting more screen time. And her characters really started to develop in the third and fourth books, with most of the central characters becoming three-dimensional by books five and six. Deathly Hallows didn’t disappoint in any of these three criteria, although I did find it odd that the character who develops the most is one who’s already dead when the book opens.
Rowling’s prose has come under a little criticism recently, although it’s possible that this has been going on all along and I just missed it. (To see what I mean, Google “Rowling clunky prose” and see how many hits come up – it’s almost as if one writer used that phrase a few years ago and every blogger on the Internet has picked it up.) The CNN.com review said “Rowling has attracted much criticism for her often clunky prose;” I couldn’t disagree more: Rowling’s prose is straightforward and descriptive, evoking images in a way that no other writer I’ve encountered is able to do. When I read a well-written book, I “see” the action in the book, almost like a movie playing in my mind as I read. The clearer the movie, the better the prose must be, and I have never run into an author who produces such incredibly well-defined images with her prose. That doesn’t necessarily mean she spends the most time on describing the scenery – I’m pretty sure Charles Dickens has that title sewn up – but that she strikes a perfect balance between descriptive text and active text. I understand that J.R.R. Tolkien’s works are more literary, but for readability, Rowling destroys Tolkien, who hails from the Dickensian tradition of giving us too fine a level of detail. Clunky prose gets in the way, slowing you down, throwing you off of the story, whereas good prose lets the story stand for itself. A good story is like fresh fish or a high-quality steak: You don’t foul that kind of food up with a heavy sauce or with overrich side dishes or with less-than-fresh ingredients, so why foul a good story up with prose that gets in the way? You want clunky prose, go read James Joyce or Henry James – if you can stomach it. I’ll stick with Rowling’s because it gets the job done.
I don’t want to talk too much about the plot for fear of introducing spoilers, but I’ll speak a little in generalities. In the context of the entire series, I don’t think Rowling could have done much better. The resolutions for the main characters worked for me, although I echo one commenter’s post on the prior thread about the epilogue being a bit too sparse; the deaths Rowling promised/threatened were reasonable, and clearly a few of the “good guys” had to die for the plot to have any semblance of believability, even within the fictional world.
The action sequences were some of Rowling’s best, with none of the muddled details and running about that made book five my least favorite in the series (due to the entire sequence at the Ministry of Magic towards the book’s end). What really worked for me in book seven, however, was the way Rowling uses a couple of major anecdotes and a few recurring characters to give both the global view of what’s going on in the wizarding world and the local view of what’s going on with Harry in the search for the Horcruxes.
She also works heavily with a few major themes – including the related themes of disillusionment and of faith – making this probably the deepest of the seven novels. Harry learns some unsettling details about Dumbledore’s past while he’s struggling to formulate a plan for locating the missing Horcruxes, leading him to wonder about the wisdom of continuing to carry out the mission Dumbledore assigned to him before his death. Harry’s relations with Ron and Hermione and the relationship between those two vacillate for much of the work as the quest goes less than smoothly and the three spend an inordinate amount of time together in uncomfortable conditions. I’ll be honest – I’m not reading these books for their deeper meaning, and while I thought I sensed some allegory about faith and trust, I was too busy enjoying the story to worry about any of that.
The seventh book’s character development is middle-of-the-pack for the series, in part because the three major characters were already pretty well developed by the end of the sixth book. Ron does end up maturing during the seventh book, but the point where he loses faith in Harry wasn’t much of a surprise and I felt like I’d seen it in an earlier book. Harry himself shows some growth towards the end of the seventh book, although this was a necessary element for the plot to reach its denouement. The character who develops the most is Albus Dumbledore, who dies at the end of book six, but whose character and background were never fleshed out previous to this book, with him serving as more of a benefactor and protector than as a full-fledged character. What you see in the back half of book six is a taste of what Rowling offers on Dumbledore in book seven. We also get some more insight into Snape’s character, but like that of Dumbledore, it’s by flashback, rather than by the characters developing as a result of the action and dialogue in the book’s present. The fact that the Big Three don’t develop much, and that the necessary direction of the plot means we don’t get to see as much of the better secondary characters (the various Weasleys, Luna, and Neville), made the lack of character development and the very heavy focus on Harry and Hermione the one big disappointment for me, although I’m obviously very invested in those characters and still ended up completely engrossed in their actions.
As I mentioned at the top, if a book has good plot, clean prose, and compelling characters, I’m in. I’ve been hooked on Harry since book one and if anything, I’m disappointed that the series is over, and the characters I know so well have seen their stories come to a close. (I did spend today in my typical post-Potter melancholy, which always hits me after I finish one of the books for the first time.) But before I let the subject drop, let me throw one story at you about what that first Harry Potter did for me.
I’ve seen a lot of criticism of Rowling’s work from people (including Harold Bloom and A.S. Byatt) who say that because the Potter novels aren’t real literature, they’re not going to lead people to read the classics or to otherwise up the quality of their reading materials. I can only speak to my own experience, but for me, that is absolute bollocks. I was a bookworm when I was younger, but my tastes were typical teenaged-boy – science fiction with a strong dose of countercultural books like Catch-22, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and any number of books by Vonnegut. The “great books” forced on me in high school bored me to tears, and as soon as I got free of those requirements, I stopped reading them altogether (which isn’t to say I everything that was assigned to me, either). When I got into my 20s, I more or less stopped reading fiction for pleasure, period, reading nonfiction when I wanted a book for a long flight.
In the fall of 2000, my wife picked up the first two Harry Potter books, tore through the first one, and gave me the old, “You have to read this!” line. So I took it on a business trip to California and started it on the plane ride home â€¦ and I was hooked. In 2001, I read the next two books, but also found myself getting back into the reading habit; I discovered P.G. Wodehouse and started perusing used book stores for the first time in a few years. I read Goblet of Fire in January of 2002, and ended up reading 75 books that year, including Moby Dick, Silas Marner, and The Sound and the Fury. Since I read that first Harry Potter book, I’ve read over 300 books, hitting Tolstoy, James, Dostoevsky, two BrontÃ«s, Fielding, Hemingway, more Faulkner, Stendhal, Hardy, Nabokov, Morrison, Eliot, Foster, Defoe, Proust, Flaubert, and the entire catalogs of Jane Austen and F. Scott Fitzgerald. The universal statement that the Harry Potter novels will not lead anyone to read the classics is wrong. J.K. Rowling reminded me that I love to read, and I will forever be grateful to her for that.
Indeed, I think that the criticism of Rowling’s work is a bit of literary snobbery, a reflection of the dismay that the exclusivity once offered to those who put the time into reading “great books” is losing currency in a world where great storytelling trumps metaphor and symbolism and all of the other things that our English professors told us were important without ever telling us why. Reading the classics has become its own reward, rather than a prerequisite for graduating from Eton before moving on to Oxford and then a job in the City, and our definition of “classics” is likely to change as well, with verbose authors like Richardson and Trollope sliding from view while new voices emerge from outside the Western canon. I won’t deny that there is tripe to be found in the fiction section of every bookstore in the United States, but lumping Rowling’s output with that tripe is unfair to her and to those of us who have loved her work to the point that it kindled – or rekindled – a love affair with the novel.
UPDATE: JC Bradbury weighs in on the Potter book – and its possible effect on baseball attendance over the weekend – on the Sabernomics blog.