Tom Perrota wrote Election, the book that was adapted to the screen starring Reese Witherspoon and Matthew Broderick, and now gives us another gem to stack at the top of our bookshelves. I've never been so absorbed in any novel like I was while reading Tom Perrotta's brilliant Little Children, a drama of sorts that delves into the intimate lives of parents in a small suburban area. What makes this story so amazing is it works on every level to drag you into the characters' lives and make you understand and relate to them. Each player brings something different to the table and keeps your interest straight through to the end. This is much more than just a novel about raising children and having affairs but it's about living your life and finding happiness, if in all the wrong places.
First we have Sarah, a young, plain-looking feminist who feels almost trapped in a life she would have never imagined she'd live. She had much larger dreams for herself than to be the wife of a middle-aged porn addict and the mother of a somewhat anti-social but very demanding daughter Lucy. She's not only living the life she would have never picked but she's surrounded by other mothers who are content, happy, and almost threatened by the presence of an outsider of the likes of Sarah.
One such mother is Mary Ann, a very conservative woman who has a scheduled time for everything, going as far as to schedule weekly sex with her husband every Tuesday night. But it's her constant control of her surroundings that masks her unhappiness and insecurity. She's constantly butting heads with Sarah, not because she loathes her, but because she envies her. She has something Mary Ann could never attain. That is Todd, the Prom King, a stay-at-home father of young Aaron who has quickly become the fantasy man in all the married mothers’ lives. He's fit and good-looking, like the prom kings at school these mothers could never be with.
Todd has his own problems though. He struggles every day to decide what he really wants to accomplish in his life. At one time he had dreams of being a lawyer, but he's failed the bar exam twice and is rounding third. This very fact has him wondering whether it's ever really been his dream or the dream of his wife Kathy, a busy film documentarian. Kathy is becoming agitated with her situation, having a husband who’s becoming complacent with his place as the mother figure in the relationship.
All of this brings us to the base of the story, which is an unlikely affair between Sarah and Todd, an affair that spurs out of control when they realize how much they need each other. Sarah is in a loveless marriage, a marriage falling further apart with every click of the mouse pad as her husband Richard falls deeper and deeper into his fantasy life with an online sex-site.
Todd on the other hand is less in a loveless marriage than he is in a marriage that makes him feel unaccomplished. He's surrounded with reminders that he's a failure, and as much as Kathy loves him she has a hard time showing it without criticizing his lack of maturity in his decisions. As the Sarah-Todd relationship deepens, we can see the almost innocence in their relationship, a childlike innocence. For the first time Sarah and Todd are experiencing love that is pure, that is real, but in all it's purity it's killing those closest to them … like their children … they are making decisions that could ruin their children.
Add to the mix Ronnie, a recently released pedophile who moved to the neighborhood and has become the talk of the town, resulting in protests and widespread panic. Ronnie is now living with his Mother May, who loves her son but fears he is not cured, and he's not. The novel does very well making Ronnie someone you despise because of his past but also feel for because he will never be accepted, even if he changes, and he knows that as well as everyone else. Especially since there is a neighborhood hero Larry Moon, an ex-cop who's struggling with his own demons while raising hell for Ronnie and his mother in his spare time.
With each character and each subplot we see a part of the human soul we don't visit enough. Each character is unsatisfied with their life, each of them are searching for something to make them complete, to make them happy but are unsuccessful, and just when they think happiness is around the corner they are all too often let down. And as far as the children are concerned, well as much as this novel revolves around adults and the choices they make, when it all comes down to it everything is done for the children.
The novel doesn't end on a good or a bad note, it just ends, but not like a Bret Easton Ellis novel, where you’re left wondering. As you read Sarah’s final thoughts you are content the story is complete even though you may be waiting for something more. This is a quick read (I read it in two days), mostly because it's so engrossing, gripping you with every word.
This is proof in what I've said for so long; it's not the story you tell but how you tell it. In less capable hands this could have been a dreadfully boring and uneventful novel, but in the hands of Perrotta this became a brilliant study in human relations and what makes us who we are. You will feel for each of these characters and understand they are all searching for the same things; they just can't help but hurt everyone else in the process.