Friday Reads Review: The Leftovers

I’ve been all fancy shmancy reviewing advance copies of books lately. But I can’t get them all and today I’ve got a review of a book that’s already out that I got just like any regular joe out there. And (spoiler alert) it’s worth the cash.

Today’s book, The Leftovers, is by one of my perpetual favorites: Tom Perrotta. I’ve read all but one of his books. (They never had the last one on my list at the library.) And he is the kind of writer he brings people and towns alive to me. I have yet to stalk him or anything, but it’s tempting now that we both live in the greater Boston area. I even emailed him to ask if he’d participate in a book group and he even emailed me back (*squee*) even if it was just to politely decline.

You may know him as the writer of Election, which was the basis for a great film adaptation starring Matthew Broderick and Reese Witherspoon in the late 90’s. The book is even darker than the fairly-dark film.

Or you may know him as the writer of Little Children, also the basis for a great film adaptation starring Kate Winslet and Patrick Wilson, that garnered Perrotta an Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay along with Todd Field, the director.

I think Little Children is probably the novel that best exemplifies what Perrotta is all about. It has all that is great and terrible in suburban life. During my own time as a rather frustrated non-working mother, I found myself thinking about Sarah–the frustrated mother of that novel–quite a lot. His characters are drawn so sharply they feel like people you know. And while the situations in his novels may rise to near hysteria, you never feel like you’re being cheated as a reader.

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When you look at Little Children and then The Abstinence Teacher and then his new book, The Leftovers all in a row, you can see how Perrotta progressed through them. First, the story of suburban parenthood and malaise. Second, the morality debates that can take over a town. With The Leftovers, you get that same nasty underbelly that comes with any community but that’s been brought to the surface by what can only be a supernatural event.

So the premise of The Leftovers is that one day, all of a sudden, thousands of people just disappear. No one knows what happened to them. Some say it’s the Rapture. Others don’t. There is no rhyme or reason to who went and who is left.

The one thing everyone shares is a sense of shock, loss and confusion. Some cling to religion. Families fall apart. Relationships end and others begin. It is, above all, a world in flux that’s completely lost its identity.

Perrotta isn’t quite as interested in stirring up debate, the way he more blatantly did with the evangelicals vs. liberals in The Abstinence Teacher. But like that novel, he does want to examine all his characters equally and he moves around from person to person showing you just what makes them tick and why they’ve chosen this particular path.

The novel centers on the Garvey family. Dad Kevin is a successful businessman who’s left his company behind when he’s recruited to be the town of Mapleton’s new mayor. Mom Laurie finds herself completely adrift and decides to join one of the strangest cults formed after the “Sudden Departure,” the Guilty Remnant. Daughter Jill changes from a straight-A student to running with the bad crowd. And son Tom leaves college to follow a strange modern-day holy-man.

As you can tell, some of these stories are simple. Some of them are definitely unusual. I found the Guilty Remnant to be a thoroughly unique idea I hadn’t seen before. They are a strange band who live together, wear only white, stalk town residents and always smoke cigarettes. Why would they do this? To remind everyone that the world is ending. Their eerie presence dominates much of the novel. They seem to cause turmoil and distress whenever they’re sighted. They certainly have a strong effect on the town, no one seems to be able to move forward in daily life with these strange beings drifting among them.

And yet, for all that sounds kind of crazy about this book, nothing seems that crazy when you read it. You see Tom become less enamored of his cult as Laurie becomes more devoted to hers. You see the guilt and conflict they have in reconciling their desires and beliefs that you have in anyone, religious or not.

At its heart, no matter how strange some of the scenarios may be, the people are the same people you’d find anywhere. Kevin goes to a softball game. He watches a parade. He goes to a city council meeting. He tries to start a new relationship.

If you’ve read Perrotta before, it probably won’t be that hard to convince you to read this book. The one thing I always remember is what a strong and intriguing writer he is. Which still doesn’t keep me from being surprised once again at how strong and intriguing his writing is whenever I start one of his novels.

If you’re already a Perrotta fan and you’re looking for something similar, might I recommend Stephen Amidon? His books examine suburban dreams that inevitably climax in astounding tragedy. (My favorite is The New City.) Even though I know going into an Amidon book that it will end horribly, I am glued to every page.

The Leftovers was released on August 30 by St. Martin’s Press. It’s still in the New York Times Bestseller Top 20, so odds are you can get a decent deal at your local bookstore.


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