Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Review: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone

While it took me three times longer to read this first book in the Harry Potter series (my goal was to read it in about a week), it was not for lack of interest but rather due to life interruptions.  However, I am thrilled to report that I not only finished the book, but I adored it ... and look forward to diving into The Chamber of Secrets later this week.

At this point I feel as though I am the last person on the planet to have read the book (for the first time), and so I struggle with writing a review that is not found in numerous other places on the web: Amazon has more than 7,800 reviews and  Goodreads boasts over 36,000 reviews and 2+ million ratings (!!)  How can I compete with that?  But perhaps I can share a slightly different perspective - from the way I read the book and the reasons I enjoyed it.

Fantasy Fiction is a stretch for me.  I am a very pragmatic, rational, black-and-white person.  The idea of make-believe creatures or magic wands and spells causes my head to spin.  I have a very difficult time suspending belief when I live in a very real world.  I am not sure that I will ever consider this genre my favorite, but by reading Rowling's books (and perhaps progressing to the more complex Lord of the Rings series), I hope to at least gain an appreciation for this style of literature.  It is not, however, the primary reason why I enjoyed this book.

The themes found in Harry Potter are universal truths that I will always clamor to read:  good vs evil; love conquers hate; loyalty and friendship help make this world a better place.  Rowling infuses just enough humor to bring these truths to light without beating us over the head.  I look forward to seeing how she develops these over the course of the seven book series, as well as what other themes she introduces as time goes on.

But while I enjoy a good theme-driven novel, that is not the primary reason why I enjoyed this reading experience.  The plot was good - the message was clear - but it was the character development that made me fall in love with book.  And in relating to these characters, I learned more about writing a novel than I would ever learn in a college-credit course.

As I mentioned in my Sunday Salon post ... I recently read a piece of writing advice that made me stop in my tracks and take notice.  Pardon me as I repeat this epiphany:
Are the characters interesting enough to you, with sufficient mysteries and depth to them, that you’ll want to spend month upon month thinking about and talking to them? Are they real enough? Is there something they’ll need to learn/do that will give your main character(s) a growth-arc over the length of a novel?
I adore a character-driven novel, but for some reason it never occurred to me to spend time with my characters before I write the story - discover their likes and dislikes - uncover their back story and how they got to this point in life - develop their strengths but pay attention to their weaknesses.  I guess I just thought that kind of depth came automatically.  Since Sunday I have devised a six-page character questionnaire that I hope will help me get to know my main characters in such a way that I don't mind spending months with them.

But honestly, that is exactly what drew me into the Sorcerer's Stone.  Rowling develops her various characters with such depth and detail that I feel as though I intimately know each and every one.  She begins with the Dursleys --- Vernon and Petunia and Dudley-- oh, the power of a name!  Can't you just see their lips puckered and the scowl on their faces?  These are sour pusses whom I love to hate.  And while there is such injustice in the way they treat Harry .... Rowling gives it just enough humor that I am not overcome with sadness before the story begins (contrast that with Dickens... whom I can't seem to get past the cruel school experience of David Copperfield to finish the first quarter of the novel).

The author manages to alleviate all fears of a giant by creating a kind, compassionate soul in the character of Hagrid.  His dialect might be difficult for some children, but if you read it aloud it makes such perfect sense.  He is sad to say good-bye to Harry at the Dursleys; he loves playing the mommy role to Norbert, the dragon, and he can't bare the thought that he might have been responsible for Harry's hospitalization at the end of the novel.  We all should have such caring guardians as Hagrid.

I feel as though the teachers are just beginning to take shape; right now they seem in outline form.  Dumbledore appears to be the archetypical wise, old man - who has a caring heart and is the epitome of good in a world that can easily turn to evil.  Snape is the wild card:  we are wary of his allegiance to Slytherin house (snakes slither and we all know the evil nature of serpents)... and yet he protected Harry from Quirrell's spell.  I do not like him, but I am curious about him.  And then there is Professor McGonagall.  For several years now I have had students compare me to this fictional character and I was never quite sure whether to take this as a compliment or an insult.  For now, I will say it is a compliment.  She is strict, that is for sure.  But she is just - and she cares about her students.

But it is the dynamic trio that truly brings this novel from a reading pastime to a life experience.  Harry, Ron and Hermione are so different, so detailed, so true to life that I know I would recognize them instantly if I should have the fortune to see them walking down the street.  I adore Harry's humility and reluctance to accept the fact that he is a hero to many.  His allegiance to truth and justice is admirable and his willingness to sacrifice self for the good of all is admirable.  He is the underdog and that makes him all the more lovable.

Ron is the baby of the family (or at least the baby boy) and he is struggling to find his place in this world.  Can't we all relate to that?  He has an older brother doing academic work in Romania - another who is the prefect at the school - and there are the twins who provide comic relief - but where does Ron fit in?  He is not the brightest nor the funniest nor the most athletic, but he is loyal to the hero and he knows how to win at chess and that is enough to win him into our hearts.

Hermione, however, is my favorite.  I love this girl - but could it be that she is too much like me?  She is studious and always wants to do the right thing.  She can't imagine breaking rules for any reason and she has a heart for the underdog, especially Neville.  I absolutely adore the banter that Rowling creates between Hermione and Ron and I already see this friendship developing into something more over time.

I am absolutely amazed how J.K. Rowling has captivated my attention with these characters in such a short period of time, and I am anxious to see how she develops their relationships - as well as my interest - through the next six books in the series.


  1. Fantasy is a stretch for me as well but I loved the Harry Potter books!

  2. I love fantasy anyway, and I loved HP -- the books get better and better.

  3. I guess that's why we who write are always advised to read read read. Reading good books seems to help us write better. Somehow.