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The Casual Vacancy: We Are All Jealous of Each Other

I am currently reading JK Rowling’s new book, the Casual Vacancy.  I’ll probably write a longer review later, but my short take on it is that if you like people, you will like this book.  I know that’s a strange thing to say, but I think there are people who like people — in general.  And there are people who only like certain people — more specific.  And if you fall in the former category, you will like this book because at its heart, it is about what drives people.  And if you fall in the latter category or you’re expecting Quidditch fields in Pagford, you will probably not like this book very much because some of the people are pretty difficult to like.  And yet you love them.  I mean, you love them if you fall in that former category of liking people in general.  If you fall in the latter category, you will probably not like a bunch of these characters and you will not enjoy the book.  And that’s my short take on Rowling’s new book in case you wanted to know whether or not you should read it.  I guess my point is decide whether you like people or don’t like most people.

Part of reading the Casual Vacancy is pure joy: I love the town as much as I love Hogwarts, by which I mean that all the characters feel like people I could one day meet if I could find the fictional town of Pagford, and even the most hateful ones — the Draco Malfoys of the small town — would still be exciting to get to have a cup of coffee with and pick their brain.  Reading it is relaxing; or, as Edgar Rice Burroughs once explained as to how one knows if they’re holding a good book:

My stories will do you no harm. If they have helped to inculcate in you a love of books, they have done you much good. No fiction is worth reading except for entertainment. If it entertains and is clean, it is good literature, or its kind. If it forms the habit of reading, in people who might not read otherwise, it is the best literature.

The Casual Vacancy passes the test; it is the best literature.

Part of reading the Casual Vacancy is seething jealousy: I want to write like that.  I don’t want Rowling’s fame or the book sale numbers or the sellout readings.  I just want the skill.  If I could write like that, I don’t even know if I’d publish.  I’d just entertain myself all day long, creating these tiny worlds and manipulating the characters in them for my own enjoyment.  Which perhaps is a good thing that I don’t have that skill because I would not be able to live with it.  I think having that type of writing skill would literally consume me.  My G-d — just writing about it is making me tweaky.

So I read the book alternating between being curled up in the corner of the sofa, practically purring because the book is so good, and then picking up my journal and jotting down notes about just. how. jealous. I. am.

I was recently talking with a friend about something I’m doing this week, and she turned to me, mouth open, and said, “I am so jealous of your life.”  Which is a funny thing to hear because you can’t actually hand your life over to someone. (It has just occurred to me how uncomfortable my dissection of my jealousy may have just made JK Rowling if she’s reading this post, so I apologize.  But I have to be honest.  I am just seething with jealousy!)  My instinct, when someone expresses interest in something I own, is to give it to them.  Like the sweater I’m wearing?  Why don’t you borrow it?  Like the way these cookies smell?  Why don’t you eat one?  Like my life… er… well… I can’t really hand that to you.

So I was sitting there, stuck between my own jealousy on one side of me in the form of the book which was inside the purse against my hip and my friend’s jealousy, which was radiating toward me a few inches away from my other hip.  And it occurred to me that sometimes when I am reading Facebook, I am almost perusing the status updates in the same way I walk through Whole Foods, judging all the fruit as whether or not the visual makes me want to eat it.  Consume it.  I scroll down the page looking at snippets from other people’s lives and thinking, “oooh, I wish that were me.  And I wish that were me.  And I wish I were there or eating that or meeting that person or seeing that show.”

Based on things other people have said to me, I’m assuming there are also other people out there jealous of things that I post.  That we are all jealous of each other, connected by millions of vibrating strings stretching between every single one of us, shaking with envy.  A tangled web of coveting.

Would I be jealous even if Facebook didn’t exist?  I think so.  I mean, I think social media makes it easier to have these feelings on a daily basis, but I remember wishing for other childrens’ toys or my neighbour’s travels or living somewhere I deemed cooler than my hometown.  I remember a friend’s cousin coming to visit from the Isle of Wight and being consumed with the thought that he got to live on the Isle of Wight (which sounded so amazing but was probably in actuality like living in Rehoboth, Delaware with better accents).  So it’s totally possible to covet things from everyone else’s life without actually having a social media account at all.  But damn, Twitter and Facebook and Pinterest and BLOGS — blogs most of all! — make it so much easier to peruse all those moments, skills, accomplishments, opportunities, and attention in which to place our jealousy.

I admit it wholeheartedly.  I am jealous.  I covet other people’s pregnancies and the ease in which they occur, I covet talent, I covet cool jobs, I covet praise and accolades given to other people, I covet character traits I believe other people find admirable because I find them admirable and I’d love to have those character traits and be admired by others.  And at the same time, I’m realistic.  I know that you can’t create a life that is a pu-pu platter of everyone else’s good things (which leaves behind their bad in order to create the perfect amalgamation of a life).  That I may not even want these accomplishments, talents, jobs, praise, or character traits if I had them. (I’m fairly certain I’d want the babies so I’ll leave those on the list.)

But that’s all beside the point.

The point of this post is to get this off my chest.  My jealousy is not a fact about me that anyone will covet; I can’t imagine anyone strives to obtain this character trait.  But I’m putting this out there in case you’ve ever felt jealousy radiating from your Facebook page, coming in like a signal from hundreds or thousands of miles away.

It’s just me, in my house, reading your Facebook status and thinking, “I wish I had that too.”

I’m putting this out there in case you’ve ever felt jealous, reading a blog, thinking, “I wish I could do that.”

You’re not alone.  I do it too.


1 No Baby Ruth { 10.16.12 at 8:40 am }

YES! And I definitely agree that social media has made it a hundred times easier to feel that jealousy. Not only are we aware of more details of our friends’ and random acquaintances’ lives than ever before, but those details also tend to be only the happiest. Nobody posts about the crappy McDonald’s they had while waiting for an oil change on their lunch break (well, some people do, but that kind of negativity gets hidden from my feeds pretty quickly, unless it’s done in a funny way…).

I actually wrote a post about my jealousy not too long ago. I think it’s an inherent “risk” with blogging.

2 Tiara { 10.16.12 at 9:09 am }

I battle internally with jealousy on a regular basis…especially because for me it seems to be followed closely in hand with guilt. I have the thought, “I wish I had that” then feel guilty that this implies I’m unhappy or unsatisfied with what I do have…it’s a vicious circle.

3 serenity { 10.16.12 at 9:12 am }

I have been jealous of JK Rowling’s writing ability from the very first Harry Potter. Her ability to create a whole world in her head, characters that fill it, and a gripping story? Mind-bending, her talent, and I wish I had 1% of her ability.

I’m a cynic when it comes to FB status updates – I read the happy updates and think “projection!” or “wishful thinking!” or “the lady doth protest too much, methinks.” 🙂


4 a { 10.16.12 at 9:17 am }

I don’t count “I wish I had that too” as jealousy. Jealousy, to me, is a very dark thing. Wishing you had someone else’s experiences can be dark, but it doesn’t have to be. I’m sure some language somewhere has a word for that – wanting someone else’s life, but not to the point of obsessing or planning to kill them off and take it. It’s probably something in German.

Why am I now picturing you standing over a table with one of those Christmas village sets and miniature people – moving them around and making up lives and dialogue for them?

5 Sarah { 10.16.12 at 10:40 am }

AHHH That green monster…..jealousy….It loves to rear it’s ugly head. I’m a terribly jealous person. I’m always jealous of what others have, or do or get. I’m jealous of who they are as a person because I think they are better than me at this or that. But as jealous as I am of all these other people, there might just possibly be someone who is jealous of me. Of course I think that can’t be because what do I have that some one would covet? But there is that small tiny itsy bitsy teeny weeny possibility. And I look at everything I have and am grateful. I thank the powers that be for giving me so much. I think how lucky I am to have what I have and to have the opportunities I have had. I’m grateful to be given a chance to do this or that. And then I see that person with that thing or this opportunity and I’m jealous all over again….It’s a vicious cycle. Thank you for letting me know I’m not alone…and yes FB is the devil when it comes to igniting jealousy in me….

6 The Steadfast Warrior { 10.16.12 at 1:07 pm }

I sooooooo want to read that book! Soon, very soon! It’s been on my list. 🙂

I’ve been on the flip side of the jealousy things lately, where people AMAZING life just because we uprooted ourselves and moved overseas. The reality is far different from the glamourous life they think we lead. Our life is very much the same as it always was before. But Facebook doesn’t convey that since I think we all can’t stand the people who ‘whine’ on Facebook all the time. It’s a very strange circumstance to find yourself in and I’ve been reflective on that lately.

I’m jealous of the people I know too. I want to be back where they are and exploring the same old haunts. If only they knew…

7 Lori Lavender Luz { 10.16.12 at 2:40 pm }

I grew up with this feeling, as well as a deep shame about coveting so much of my sister’s life. Hers seemed so much better and easier than mine.

I hadn’t realized until I read your post that I don’t do that as much any more. I do have pangs once in awhile, but the seething seems to be gone. I like my life.

Jealous? 😉

Must get my hands on that book.

8 Cristy { 10.16.12 at 2:57 pm }

Guilty of jealousy on this end. Very guilty. I find that my level of jealousy is reflective of how much I’m struggling in my own life. For instance: learning about someone who is pregnant after a month of trying when we’ve been struggling for 3 years. Or finding out someone got a promotion or was awarded a grant for seeming to put in the minimal effort. It’s hard to struggle and I think jealousy is a reflection of the unhappiness that comes with struggling.

On that note, I’m now jealous of Lori!! 😉 But it’s hard to stay there for too long, though, as it’s her attitude towards life that is so infectious.

9 LN { 10.16.12 at 3:28 pm }

And of course Ron frequently lets his jealousy of Harry cloud over his better judgement. He wants to have his money and fame, and in book 4, Ron’s jealousy prevents him from being helpful. Again in book 7, Ron’s jealousy (this time of the closeness between Harry and Hermione) keeps him from helping his friends when they need him most. Ironically, Harry would trade the fame and money in a second to be a part of Ron’s huge, loving family. Of all people, Rowling understands the inevitability of wanting (or thinking you want) what others have.

10 KeAnne { 10.16.12 at 8:37 pm }

I’m happily envious and admiring of those who write really well. It’s a benign envy if that makes sense; they (including you!) give me something to which aspire. I’m jealous of those who get opportunities for which I doubt their qualifications or who seem overly admired for what I deem to be an insufficient reason. Wow, I sound horrible.

Facebook doesn’t make me envious, possibly because I don’t go there as much lately. Plus, most of my “friends” are from high school and truly, there’s not much to envy there. I do find myself feeling jealousy over Twitter though: what’s tweeted or retweeted; who is sought out vs doing the seeking out; conversations among groups of people and wishing I were “in.” It seems silly, but what I see on Twitter sparks jealousy more than any other social network.

In real life, I remember envying my cousin because everything seemed to come to her effortlessly and that seemed to continue into adulthood. I now shake my head instead of feeling jealous; I would not want her life.

Right now I’m jealous of people who have houses not infested with carpet beetles; who come home at a decent hour from work and have quality play time with their child before bedtime; who have iron clad routines that work perfectly; who never feel guilt or doubt about their parenting; who feel like rock stars at work and home.

11 Sara { 10.16.12 at 9:01 pm }

This was a very helpful book review, and it also triggered a revelation about the nature of my husband–that he really likes SOME people, but perhaps doesn’t actually like people, which is an insight that I had never had before, so I appreciate it.

Jealousy is an interesting topic for me. I used to think that I wasn’t by nature a “jealous person.” I saw good things happen to my friends and I felt happy for them. Occasionally I thought “that must be nice, I would like to try that,” but it wasn’t a big deal. I do remember comparing myself to others on the subject of career, but it wasn’t in a way that caused me to seethe. It wasn’t that my life was perfect, but it was good and it was mine, and the things that I didn’t like, I tried to change.

Then came infertility. And now, 8 years later, I am intimately familiar with a whole new landscape of jealousy. I now know that yes, somebody else’s good news can cause you to weep tears so bitter that all activity for the day screeches to a halt. I now know that jealousy can change, and even end, relationships. I now know that jealousy can become a filter through which I see the world. I didn’t know that before.

Now, I’ve got it down to a dull roar about most things, but it’s different, knowing that it’s there. I have had to make peace with a very different landscape since I discovered what jealousy really was.

12 Queenie { 10.16.12 at 11:23 pm }

I am really glad there was no social media around when I was 20, because the jealousy would have eaten me alive. I was so insecure, so unsure of myself. The grass was always greener, and I would have really bought into FB. One of the great tbings about aging is
tbat it really does bring wisdom. When I look at
it, I keep in mind that it’s just a highlights reel, and that every
seemingly amazing moment or accomplishment has downsides an
d costs. We all have our own paths. I have to look no further than my own life to know that. That really keeps the envy in check.

13 Kristin { 10.17.12 at 9:10 am }

Yes, yes, and yes…I so identify with the feelings in this post.

14 Peg { 10.17.12 at 9:27 am }

First, I can’t wait to read Casual Vacancy and that was before your review. I’m hoping to get it for my birthday (end of November) and have it for stress relief getting ready for the holidays.

I hate admitting it, but I’m pretty much jealous of others every day. I know that we made the choices we did for our family with open hearts and minds, but there are still days that I look at my sisters who didn’t step up to care for my nieces and have pangs of envy that their family lives are how they want it. I’m even jealous of my older sister with the little girls because I think “what’s the big deal? they only have 2 kids.” I look at my friends who’s biggest concern is not getting time to get a pedicure during the week or their kid’s latest school drama. I’m jealous that their kids don’t deal with the heavy stuff our kids do. I know it’s not healthy, but I can’t help myself. I also am jealous of the perfect houses with organization and perfect decour.

These feelings don’t necessarily dominate my day, but they’re always there in the background.

Thanks for the thought provoking post.

15 Brooke { 10.17.12 at 7:45 pm }

I saw Rowling on the Stewart show the other night and her presence and intelligence made a fan out of me, can’t wait to read the book. (I have a theory in my head that the book will be Tom Perotta-esque?, but I’m open to whatever happens between those pages!).

I really had to think for a minute about my jealousies and whether or not I am jealous and I realized that right now and probably for the last 2 years, I would not consider myself jealous.

In the past, yes. I yearned for a lot of things I didn’t have (and probably didn’t need). But right now I’m so focussed on a goal (getting pregnant) that I don’t have mental space for other stuff.

Hehehehehe, hopefully I won’t transform into a jealous, seething prego when I attain that particular goal 🙂

16 m. { 10.18.12 at 2:15 pm }

Dear Mel, thank you for this post.

Besides the babies, I don’t yearn so much for things I don’t have anymore. I realize now, decades later, that I spent so much time carrying a massive chip of envy on my shoulder through the ivy league school I attended, that I missed a lot. A LOT. Relationships, moments, even learning experiences, poof. Slipped by because I was too busy trying to point to the silver spoon that wasn’t in my mouth. Like I somehow had more barriers to cross to get there. Like that should earn me a medal.

I remember being enraged when a roommate’s friend came to visit and made assumptions about me that were 100% inaccurate and unfair. Yet I operated in the same fashion. Daily. Never saw the irony. Not once.

Here in my grown up days, its not so much about jealously, its managing expectations. What I expect of myself (because of this, this and this..) and what I think others expect of me. That, for me, is what leads to feelings of ick. Not so much comparing myself to someone else, but to the me that I think I should be at that moment.

But sometimes there ARE twinges after reading a particular fabulous blog post. I’ve read two just today. Those, “damn, I wish I wrote that” tweaks and you describe it so well:

“alternating between being curled up in the corner of the sofa, practically purring because the book is so good, and then picking up my journal and jotting down notes about just. how. jealous. I. am.”

17 Denise { 10.18.12 at 2:56 pm }

oh yes… jealous all the time.
Not sure if it’s ‘maturity’ or ‘depression’ or ‘realism’ but over the last decade I’m starting to learn (1) that other people’s accomplishments and successes DON’T reflect negatively on ME (my slowing knee-jerk reaction to this is to instantly compare and see where I’ve come up short, or where I feel like I should also be honored, and (2) that the things I want that my friends have- a 2nd child, a ‘better’ higher profile job- don’t work with my life because, unfortunately, I am who I am, and my husband is who HE is. After a miscarrriage for an unexpected pregnancy, I kind of freaked out and thought we HAD to conceive again, over my husband who can not deal with more. I saw my successful friends who ‘had it all’- multiple kids, lots of money, big house, supportive family networks, etc.- and coveted all that. And sadly, I’ve had to realize that I don’t have all that and so just adding a 2nd child into the mix would not produce the wonderful situations my friends have. And the most uncomfortable realization is that it’s the personalities of me and my husband, and the ways we deal (poorly) with stress, that make this whole thing an unrealistic daydream. I know we are handling the max we can do (with a modicum of grace) and more than I covet my friends money, houses, and jobs, I cover their PERSONALITIES and their husband’s personalities and life approach. And while I know I can get a better job, more money, and a bigger house- at at our ages, we’re basically stuck at who we are as people. And that’s the impasse…

18 loribeth { 10.19.12 at 9:05 am }

I like to THINK I am not afflicted with the green-eyed monster, but of course I am — I think it’s human nature. The question is whether we let it eat away at us. Like many of us here, I have been (& sometimes still am) jealous of women whose pregnancies & families come so easily and just seem to take it all for granted. And I get severe cases of house envy now & then, even though I know I would not want the mortgage or the extra cleaning effort that would go along with it. Right now, I think I am most jealous of former coworkers who took early retirement & are enjoying their classes and volunteer work and extra leisure time. I know my turn is coming… sooner rather than later… but it’s hard on the days when I can’t see my desk for all the paperwork covering it. :p

BIL frequently gets worked up about friends & relatives who have huge new houses, fancy cars & take regular expensive vacations to the Caribbean & Europe. “How do they do it??” he wants to know. My gut feeling is they have taken on a ton of debt. We never really know just what the other person’s story is (that woman with the adorable baby I am eyeing enviously may have had six previous miscarriages for all I know), so that’s why I try to temper my green-eyed monster.

19 Justine { 10.19.12 at 4:23 pm }

I am totally envious (because I’ve now also read E’s post) of lots of people’s things. I covet talent, I covet lifestyles. But on the other hand, I don’t really. I want the ability to have them if I choose them.

There have been a lot of articles and posts about how Facebook makes us unhappy, and this has been one of the key points in that assessment: that social media highlights mostly the fabulous things people have (or do, or are), and much less so the darker side of life. So we become more envious, more unhappy with what we have, more self-doubting.

I think I’d be more justified in being envious, though, if I tried my best to HAVE those things that I want, to pursue those dreams, and failed. I would love to be paid regularly for my writing. But I haven’t chosen to put my daughter in day care so I can have more hours in the day to write. I still check Facebook too often at night after I finish all of the other house chores and cooking, which is the time I *would * have to write if I wanted it. I chose to help a colleague with a few hours of part time work here and there in the late evening, which diffuses my focus. So … I don’t know … maybe we don’t need to justify envy, but sometimes I sort of feel like I don’t have a right to it. If that makes any sense at all …

20 luna { 10.20.12 at 3:08 am }

there’s a lot I could say about jealousy and envy and how I struggled when I was literally the only one among my family and friends who could not seem to build her family, despite that I tried harder than all of them.

instead I’ll just share something I’ve been pondering. I have this FB friend who’s a lovely person. gorgeous, sweet, uber fertile, perfect kids and house and husband, tons of friends, talented, SAHM, etc. the majority of her updates have to do with lounging poolside with drinks or happy hour, spa treatments or some other self improvement, or vacations. I always try to gauge my reaction — is it annoyance or disgust? is it envy? I’ve thought about blocking her. but really I’m just annoyed with myself that it bothers me so much.

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