Oh, dear, David! How did I get myself into the position of attacking J.K. Rowling, whose worst book I’d far rather read than practically anybody else’s best? Do we have to agree to disagree? Can’t we just agree instead?
Not about the Dursleys, of course. I’m never going to like them. Blubber notwithstanding, they’re flat as paper (although Rowling does promise by the end to make Aunt Petunia more complicated—we’ll see next time how that works out). And if villains have to be flat (which not all of Rowling’s are, by the way), I prefer the Tolkien version—towering and humorless—to the Roald Dahl-ish—laughable and cartoonish. However, I recognize that this is a matter of taste. I bet you like James and the Giant Peach more than I do, too.
I think the cyclic nature of the Harry Potter novels as both a strength and a weakness. Yes, Rowling has a tough job cutting Harry back down to size at the beginning of each book, after letting him triumph so spectacularly at the end of the preceding one. She has to make him good and ordinary, so we can all identify with him and truly savor his superiority (and by extension our own). And so his cousin Dudley sits on him in the opening chapters; or he is oppressed by schoolwork that’s beyond his powers. (Face it, Harry’s not the brightest candle in the Great Hall.)
You can always count on a certain structure in the Harry Potter books. They’ll start off with the Dursleys; there’ll be a transportation scene, probably on the Hogwarts Express; a new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher will stir the cauldron; they’ll break for a merry Christmas; Hagrid will nurture some violent beastie, which will make a serious contribution to the plot; our heroes will beat a path through the thickets of the Forbidden Forest; and Harry will magic his way through an enchanted obstacle course, where he’ll solve a puzzle and at least partially defeat Voldemort. The repetition generally works to give the books a comforting sameness and backbone—like a sonnet’s rhyme and meter—but this time around I felt it was pinching a bit. I began to feel it was time to acknowledge that Harry isn’t quite so humble as all that—time to increase the drama, instead, by upping the odds against him. To some extent Rowling does this, but I think she could do it even more. Maybe she will in the next book.
See, Professor—I did finish the book, while you were writing your reply. And yes, it gets better, as you promised it would and I suspected it might. I wanted to read it slowly to savor it: Last year, when I reviewed the Goblet of Fire for Newsday, I had 36 hours between opening the book and turning in the review, and I felt like I was being hurried through the Louvre on a motorcycle (or maybe a thestral). But the slow approach was a mistake. You’ve got to let the thing sweep you along at its own pace.
There are plenty of delightful moments in the Order of the Phoenix. To mention only a very few of my favorites, I loved Hermione’s distaste when Hagrid treats his black eye with a raw dragon steak (“Oh, Hagrid, don’t, it’s not hygien—”); the scene where Professor McGonagall puts Inquisitor Umbridge in her place; Harry’s Christmas presents (a nagging homework planner from Hermione; a furry brown wallet from Hagrid, with fangs, “which were presumably supposed to be an antitheft device, but unfortunately prevented Harry from putting any money in without getting his fingers ripped off”); and the wizards’ horror at primitive Muggle remedies like stitches (” ‘It sounds as though you’ve been trying to sew your skin back together,’ said Mrs. Weasley with a snort of mirthless laughter, ‘but even you … wouldn’t be that stupid—’ “). But amusing as such details are, they’re spread a bit thin among the novel’s 870 pages. And most of the important tools and mcguffins—the Pensieve (a sort of external hard drive for the brain), the Portkey (a device for instantaneous transportation), even the wonderful Room of Requirement, which appears, properly equipped, only to those who have real need of it—showed up first in earlier books. (Last time we saw the Room of Requirement, it was full of chamber pots. Where’s that when I need it?)
Everyone’s talking about how complex Harry’s become in this new book, with his emerging adolescence. Well, yes, he’s gotten testy and hormonal—but the character whose development I find really interesting is Snape. Now, there’s a hero with a dark side for you—or a villain you want in your corner.