It's so hard for me to criticize any Harry Potter book -- they all have such a special place in my heart and always will -- but Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets is the weakest of the series for me, both in my initial reading and the more recent reread. In fact, in the spirit of full disclosure, Chamber of Secrets is the book I either (a) skimmed through or (b) skipped when rereading the series each time a new book came out.
I actually liked Chamber of Secrets more on the reread, especially since I was rereading it on the heels of Sorcerer's Stone -- and reading it while on vacation with family friends in beautiful, peaceful Ohio, sitting outside and drinking a glass of my favorite pinot gris. Setting makes a serious difference in the reading experience, doesn't it?
I think my real problem with Chamber of Secrets is the beginning; though I love Ron and the twins' flying car rescue of Harry from his uncle-imposed exile (and Mrs. Weasley's reaction when the boys -- with Harry in tow -- return in the early morning after having been gone all night), I'm not a big fan of the flying car in general. That Ron and Harry would jump into the car when they can't get through the barrier to Platform 9 3/4 instead of, you know, waiting for Mr. and Mrs. Weasley to return, struck me as a device, and a forced one, at that. Rowling makes up for it by making Ron's wand (broken in the inevitable flying car crash) a major plot point as well as by bringing the flying car (now gone feral) back later in the book, but the illogical flight to Hogwarts and the trouble the boys get into is maybe my least favorite moment in the entire series.
There are some truly fantastic moments in Chamber of Secrets, though, like:
- Harry's discovery of and subsequent dive into the diary of Tom Riddle -- Rereading all of the scenes in which Tom Riddle makes an appearance is fascinating, especially when you couple those scenes with Dumbledore's memories of Tom from Half-Blood Prince. Over the course of seven books -- and you really have to put all seven together to get this -- Rowling develops a complete, complex portrait of Voldemorte.
- The introduction to Dumbledore's phoenix, Fawkes -- Harry first meets Fawkes when Fawkes is at the end of his phoenix cycle; he burns up before Harry's eyes and is reborn from his own ashes. It is a beautiful, beautiful moment.
Side story: I teach ninth graders, and every March we read Fahrenheit 451, which is my favorite book to teach, bar none. Anyway, if you've read Fahrenheit, you know that the phoenix plays an important role in the story, for its representation of both fire and rebirth. When the phoenix is first introduced at the beginning of the novel (as a symbolic patch on the firemen's uniforms), I always ask, "So what is a phoenix? What does it do? Why is it significant?" And the students always know the answers, because they've most of them read Harry Potter, and they remember Fawkes.
- Hagrid's backstory -- I'm actually not a huge Hagrid fan, but Rowling teases a lot of Hagrid's past in Sorcerer's Stone, and I like that she follows up with it. His expulsion from Hogwarts (at Tom Riddle's hands, no less) is very in character, and while I think his bumbling gets old at times, I like how Rowling uses him to introduce many of the creature characters throughout the series (Aragog, Buckbeak, etc.).
- Gilderoy Lockhart -- The first time I read Chamber of Secrets, I hated Gilderoy Lockhart so much, but on rereading -- well, I still think he's a jerk, but I absolutely love how Rowling characterizes him. I laughed through every one of his scenes, especially his wizard duel with Snape (Snape! *heart*), and when he gets his comeuppance at the end, well, no fate was more richly deserved.
Still, The Chamber of Secrets is a solid second book and starts to move out of YYA (young young adult) into YA nicely -- just in time for Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, which is one of the strongest books in the series and which I am super-excited to reread, because Prisoner of Azkaban is when things really start getting good. And by good, I mean darker. Well, and good. I think Rowling hits her stride with PoA, but I'll save that for another post.