Dear Dan and Polly,
Thanks for welcoming me to your correspondence. I'm afraid that my media blackout—which began about a week and a half ago, once I began hearing rumors of a leak—extended to this Book Club; even though I knew you guys would not be so crude as to include spoilers, I simply could not be safe enough. It was odd how many people took joy in giving away the ending; a friend who writes a Potter column for another site said someone e-mailed her anonymously over the weekend with all the spoilers. That's positively Voldemortian. The Dark Lord takes many forms.
I'm afraid, Polly, that I cannot assuage your fears; I, too, found the book mildly disappointing. This was surely inevitable, but alas. In a way, I find this last book just as frustrating as I found the Sopranos finale—but frustrating in the exact opposite way. In the ambiguous final episode of The Sopranos, David Chase seemed not to care enough about his characters to give them an appropriate send-off: He seemed more concerned with making a statement about audience expectations than with satisfying our desire for closure. Here, J.K. Rowling seems to care too much. She continuously walks her charges to the precipice and pulls them back to safety. She can't bring herself to kill off anyone important. For all the talk of major characters dying, none of our key heroes ever seems in real danger. Sure, Lupin, Tonks, and Mad Eye bite it, but we were never tied as closely to them as to our sainted trio. (You'll forgive me for not rending garments at the death of Dobby; I've always found the elves an annoying mix of Ewok, Jar Jar, and Hobbit. The scene when Harry manually digs Dobby's grave is one of the most gripping scenes in the book, perhaps more than the elf deserves.) People die … but no one we really care about.
I've read the section in which Harry talks with the dead-but-still-whimsical Dumbledore a couple of times now, and I'm still not quite sure I buy his explanation of why Harry isn't toast. The torturing of Hermoine by Bellatrix—whom Longbottom totally should have been allowed to kill (although having Mrs. Weasley kill her instead did facilitate the thoroughly enjoyable appearance of the word bitch in a Harry Potter book)—is nothing compared with Dumbledore's tortured explanation of why Harry isn't dead. When Harry is walking toward what he believes is his fatal destiny, it's the most heart-tugging section of the book; never has Harry been more heroic than when he knows that only his death can save the wizard world. Letting him scamper away from that via some bizarre technicality—one we understand (insofar as we understand it) only thanks to another "we're at the end of the book, so it's time for Dumbledore to explain everything" soliloquy—feels like Rowling copping out. Could we have handled a Harry death? I think we could have. I think it would have ennobled him, and us. Of course, I'm 31, not 12.
It's a shame, because the whole Battle of Hogwarts section might be the best battle sequence in any of the books; I imagined it being directed by Peter Jackson. But to interrupt it twice, once with Dumbledore's odd King's Cross musings and once with the dip into Snape's memories—which means the most suspenseful, climactic moment of a 600,000-word series features Harry staring into a bowl—is contrary to the hard-charging, plot-driven, move move move nature of the other books. These books are about action; here, Rowling keeps dawdling in the midst of the main set piece.
This is the most lackadaisical of all the Potter books, I think. Not only is the conclusion spliced strangely, but the whole middle section, as you pointed out, Dan, is a rather dull and meandering road movie. I will now sum up an unusually long passage:
*** Harry, Hermoine, and Ron go on the run.
*** Harry, Hermoine, and Ron show up in a deserted hiding area and yell at each other because they're bored and scared.
*** Ron leaves because he's bored and scared.
*** Harry and Hermoine show up in a deserted hiding area and try not to yell at each other because they're bored and scared.
*** Ron comes back, and then the action (finally!) starts again.
I just summarized about 150 pages. I've always enjoyed the length of these books because they never felt like they were stalling; the world Rowling created was so expansive and alive that they almost felt too short. That's not the problem with this one; with this one, you want to scream, "Get them out of the damned forest! We haven't seen Snape in about 400 pages! Unless they're about to pull a Donner party, can we move on, please?"
And don't get me started about Snape. The most compelling character of the whole series has three scenes in the final book, and his big death scene involves him leaking blue memories about Harry's mom. Harrumph.
Man, I do sound grumpy, don't I? As always, I loved the physical experience of reading the book; perhaps I grouse because it's slowly dawning that that experience is now gone.
Hoping I'll feel more charitable tomorrow,