Book Review: J.K. Rowling, John Tiffany, and Jack Thorne’s Harry Potter and the Cursed Child Parts I and II

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[Spoilers will be very involved.]  

When I first heard about six or seven months ago that there was going to be a new Harry Potter book, I experienced very mixed emotions. Part of me was beyond ecstatic — I mean, it’s been nine years since the last book, and I may be 23, but I still to this day get ridiculously severe melancholic bouts of missing Harry — and another part of me was nervous and distrustful as hell. Then the news broke that Harry Potter and the Cursed Child Parts I and II was going to be in play format and I added concern to the list of emotions I was experiencing as July 31, 2016 approached.

Despite this maelstrom of emotions (of which Harry, I think, would be very proud), I went out and bought my book, sat down, and read it straight through in four hours. Just like every other time a new Harry Potter book has been released, the world faded away and I devoured the story voraciously.

As I was reading it, I enjoyed the story. It kept my attention and tended to move at an extremely fast and clipped pace. The first several scenes were mainly exposition to introduce us to Harry’s family and especially the trials and challenges facing his young son Albus as the progeny of the Boy Who Lived. After this, when Albus decides to take matters of his father’s war-filled past into his own hands, the plot barrels full-steam ahead. I can see how it would work well on the stage but, when read, The Cursed Child has a dodgy pace that is simultaneously intense and lackadaisical — some events will be given sufficient stage presence, while others are moved along faster than the Hogwarts Express itself. Another flaw was that, thanks to the returning plot point of the time turner, Rowling, Tiffany, and Thorne tried to fit too many events into the storyline. (Didn’t McGonnagall warn us of this kind of danger way back in Prisoner of Azkaban?)

The Cursed Child is split between being a story about middle-aged Harry Potter and a story about a young and somewhat angst-ridden Albus Potter. The plot teeters between whether it is concerned with what it means to have successors to the world you have shaped and what it means to follow in the footsteps and shadows of those influential predecessors. Both Harry and his son struggle in their relationship, one feeling the pressure of being a father and the other feeling the pressure of being his father’s son. Though most of those around him fully accept Albus as his father’s son, the boy still combats the desire to live up to — and, at one point, actively reject — his father’s legacy. What fascinated me most about this plotline was the constant reminders that Harry is still the boy we used to know: He grew up with no parents, but especially (according to this plot) no father, and he is still wrestling with this missing person and relationship in his life, as is proven by his many contentious and irresponsible interactions with Albus in particular. The simultaneous promise, protection, and shadow of fatherhood grips much of The Cursed Child in much the same way that time — and the wizarding world and its inhabitants’ pasts, presents, and futures — remains a constant but malleable presence throughout as well.

My greatest difficulty in finishing The Cursed Child was dealing with how both the familiar and new characters were portrayed and treated. Firstly, I felt the writers significantly betrayed the original characters’ personalities. Ron serves as merely comedic relief throughout the play, entering only in time to fire off a wisecrack or get berated by his wife. As in the Harry Potter film franchise, Ron Weasley isn’t portrayed primarily as Harry’s best and most loyal friend. In The Cursed Child, he even seems significantly superseded by Draco Malfoy as a more stoic and effective presence. Similarly, Hermione seems to be a separate character as well. In the same moment we learn that Hermione has become Minister for Magic (didn’t she specifically say that she’d never go into law or politics, that she wanted to “do some good in this world”?), we see her become completely detached from her best friends: She nags Harry half-heartedly but doesn’t seem to connect with him at all. And, worst of all, she never seems to appreciate Ron, and only waves off his many attempts to stand up to Malfoy for her. Ginny becomes her mother — judgmental, preachy, condescending and reprimanding to her husband — and the plot gives little proof that she has a career (or any of her world-renowned spunk) but a lot of proof of dowdy jumpers and skirts. And worst of all, Harry is downright rotten to everyone around him, which isn’t exactly new, but something he would never do is look his own son dead in the eye and say, “Well, there are times I wish you weren’t my son.” I can’t imagine the Harry I know, the boy who was once told every day he was unwanted and unloved for eleven years, the boy who was speechlessly touched to receive a raggedy and vomit-colored jumper, the boy who risked everything for a godfather — a true connection to his parents, a pseudo-parent, even — he’d known for only a little more than a year, ever telling anyone — even in the direst of circumstances — that they were unwanted in any way. Granted, some may argue that all of these “changes” are due to aging and maturation, that none of us are the same at 36 as we were at 17, that jobs and parenthood will change you. But so severely?

I’ve always loved the idea of the Golden Trio’s children at Hogwarts, of a new generation taking on magic and adventure, but what The Cursed Child delivered was not what I’d expected. We see Harry and Ginny’s other children, James and Lily, briefly at each start of the new school year, and then they fade away. James, Albus’s older brother, barely appears on stage long enough to even stand as much of a counterpoint to Albus, while Lily has no part whatsoever. And — most disappointing of all — Ron and Hermione’s daughter Rose is absolutely awful. She is a mean, snobbish, slightly popular version of her mother who completely turns her back on Albus when he befriends Scorpius Malfoy. I always imagined her as a combination of the best parts of her parents: loyal, smart, dedicated, always thinking outside the box, caring towards others. Instead, she embodies her parents’ greatest faults: prejudiced, spiteful, and single-mindedly ambitious. While the Golden Trio were an exemplary portrayal of the power of friendship and love, their children have turned out much the opposite. While that could arguably be an argument of the play itself, it was disconcerting and disappointing to actually read for someone who’d been looking forward to this since the seventh book first introduced us to the next generation. Lastly, the character of Delphi (I’ll be honest, I totally forgot her name) is an add-on and, though she’s an essential plot twist, disappears entirely for much of the story. Her personality is undefined and sketchy and I distrusted her immediately. The plot point of Delphi as the daughter of Lord Voldemort and Bellatrix Lestrange is embarrassing, even cringe-worthy, and reads like poorly considered fan service.

As someone who lives for character portrayals and development in fiction, The Cursed Child did not deliver as I’d hoped.

The brightest light in the dark, however, is my sweet winter child, Scorpius Malfoy. Draco’s son, Scorpius is nothing at all like his father. He is driven, yes, but only when it comes to reading books and passing exams. He is snarky, hilarious, quick to the punch, and adorably in love with Rose Granger-Weasley. He is also best friends with a Potter. Scorpius is the hero of the story not just because I love him, but also because he is so loyal to his best friend Albus that he essentially saves the day. He faces dementors, Voldemort Day, Dolores Umbridge, and Albus ignoring him entirely in order to save his friend and his friend’s family from being lost entirely to time. Though Harry distrusts him and Albus betrays him for a short while, love and friendship still win out in Scorpius’s personality. Like Harry, Ron, and Hermione before him, Scorpius proves that strength is in loyalty and relationships, not strength, control, or power. Scorpius Malfoy is the last remnant of the original series’ themes in The Cursed Child

Ultimately, I find it necessary to mention it was extremely hard to write this review. I’ve sat on having read this book for two weeks now. I love Harry Potter and Jo Rowling as much as the next Harry Potter fanatic. This book was an enjoyable and entertaining read, but I struggle with reconciling this with what I consider the canon of the Harry Potter universe. There is so much in this story that directly contradicts and betrays the facts, plot points, and characters that Rowling established in the original series. The decisions to involve time turners, the reversal of Cedric Diggory’s death, and the child of Lord Voldemort were wild and extreme individually, and to include all of them at once were a bit overwhelming in a fantastical world that has never seemed to inappropriately break reality despite magic being involved.

All in all, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child Parts I and II was a wild ride, and all its faults won’t stop me from defending it from my overly offensive and critical customers at work; from psycho-analyzing the parallels between father/son relationships and the passage of time; or from wanting to love and protect Scorpius with everything I’ve got. There are some fun bits, some top-notch humor, and some new, beautiful friendships to recommend The Cursed Child. And, above all, the remaining question: Who is the Cursed Child?

* * *

Please note: Featured image is copyrighted to artist and illustrator Jim Kay.

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