An Unlikely Read-Alike Pair by Laura Raphael

If you said you loved Zadie Smith’s funny, literary, character-driven novels, an easy read-alike recommendation to make would be E.M. Forster. The Edwardian novelist of such works as Howard’s End and A Passage to India, Forster is Smith’s clear predecessor in the satirical social comedy realm. If you wanted something more contemporary, I’d probably hand you an Ian McEwan or an Amy Tan, both literary stalwarts who plumb similar settings and relationships as Smith.

But J.K. Rowling? The mind who dreamt up the fantastical world of Hogwarts and its mortal enemies Harry Potter and Voldemort?

Well… yes. Not the Harry Potter series, but Rowling’s latest (and first adult) novel, The Casual Vacancy, which gives Zadie Smith a run for her money in social criticism, layered character relationships, biting comedy, and thematic depth.

In fact, I read Smith’s latest novel, NW, not long before reading The Casual Vacancy and was struck by how similar the two works were. NW is more experimental in its style, with a series of very short, sometimes elliptical chapters of enigmatic origin, while The Casual Vacancy sets a traditional trajectory of chapters and easily-identifiable voices.

Nevertheless, they both deal with neighborhoods in contemporary England where social class is of paramount importance, and both give a less than flattering view of people in power – where selfishness, narcissism, and a lack of empathy are common.

And both left me greatly satisfied by their meatiness – and wanting more.

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