The Book Club

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

Dear Judith,

I stayed up way past my bedtime reading this book last night. My boyfriend quite reasonably wanted to sleep, and we had houseguests camped in the living room, so I curled up on the bathroom floor and read until 1:30 in the morning. I wasn’t cramming for this review–I didn’t know I’d be writing one until just a few minutes ago, when you and I agreed to compare our impressions in print. It’s just that things kept happening. In the first 200 pages, the evil wizard Voldemort snacked on a new victim; the home of Harry’s miserably non-magical relatives was stormed by sympathetic rescuers; Harry attended his first Quidditch World Cup; a much-feared dissident faction revisited the wizard world; the old gang returned to school at Hogwarts; the all-important, 700-year-old TriWizard Tournament was announced; and an intriguing new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher was introduced. I kept looking for a natural place to stop reading, but these events were so tightly braided together–by the time one ended, another was in full swing–that I couldn’t put the book down.

The previous volumes, while thickly plotted, proceeded at a more leisurely pace. It’s as if Rowling, who has promised the world seven installments, suddenly realized how much narrative labor lies ahead before the series is through. In no particular order, she must secure a safe future for the wrongfully accused Sirius Black; explain Hagrid’s muddied history; fill in the blanks about Harry’s parents’ still-mysterious deaths; bring the odious Draco Malfoy to a suitably nasty end; sort out the political infighting at the Ministry of Magic; get each of the students past their O.W.L.s (Ordinary Wizarding Level exams); and stage the decisive battles between Harry and his oppressor Lord Voldemort. And if The Goblet of Fire is any indication, Rowling is still spinning new characters and plot lines as fast as she’s resolving others. No wonder this book weighs in at 734 pages.

The miracle is that the clamorous storytelling feels right–rushed, to be sure, but thrillingly so, and even somewhat true to life. Rowling yanks Harry and his pals into adolescence rather rudely, inflicting them with zits and crushes and grouchiness they’d shown very little trace of before. But real puberty strikes even more insidiously and awkwardly. The plot developments in the first two hundred pages do streak past a bit too quickly, but then again, time truly does speed up as you get older. It’s a little bracing to see Harry’s world, which has hitherto been confined mostly to Hogwarts and environs, suddenly include wizards and schools of other nationalities. But a 14-year-old’s universe does tend to expand radically, so the sudden appearance of foreigners and funny accents and tourists don’t seem wrong.

Magic helps move the plot along too. Like Mr. Weasley, who erects a pup tent that’s actually a three-room flat, Rowling uses spells to cram more plot into Goblet of Fire than one expects it could hold.  Her narrative feats would certainly be impossible in the real(ist) world. Harry instantly escapes from life-threatening predicaments by summoning the correct potion or enchanted gadget, allowing us to move on to his next adventure. Likewise, Rowling can quickly work her way out of a narrative dead end or intractable character issue simply by conjuring up a new magical creature, charm, or tradition. Trapped by the sinister Professor Snape? Enter an Invisibility Cloak, a Marauder’s Map, a Sneakoscope! If you had these devices at your disposal, you could pack in a lot of nimble plot turns too.

Which makes Rowling’s restraint all the more admirable. She doesn’t abuse her magical privileges–like the best of the Hogwarts crowd, Rowling establishes and obeys a definite set of rules. She allows Harry to solve minor emergencies–getting caught in the school hallways after curfew, that sort of thing–with bewitched trinkets and just-learned spells. But the big trials require more than magic on Harry’s part; he must rely on logical deduction and bravery and cunning and friendship. And instead of resolving the big moments with deus-ex-machina tricks, Rowling laboriously constructs resolutions that tap into, and further, the central narratives.

In terms of sheer delight, I haven’t savored anything as much as this series since, well, since the last time I hid in a bathroom to read. My one complaint, and it’s a biggie, is that the moral lessons of the series so far–be true to your friends, evil is as evil does, things aren’t what they seem, every rule has an exception–seem to me a lot less intriguing than Rowling’s dazzling narrative triumphs. As the plot grows more intricate, do you think the book’s messages will follow? Am I asking too much of what is, after all, a children’s book?

One current plot line, in which Harry’s friend Hermione campaigns to liberate Hogwarts’ house-elves, shows some promise. All the elves but one (and all the wizards except Hermione) insist they enjoy their indentured-servant status. Is Hermione a lone moral beacon or an overzealous, misguided liberal intent on saving those who are better off as they are?

Your bewitched friend,