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Book Review: The Leftovers by Tom Perrotta

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On a perfectly ordinary day in October, with no warning, millions of people around the world simply disappear. They come from all backgrounds, ethnicities, ages, religions. They are parents, spouses, children, friends. They are gone, with no explanation, and the question is: How do the people who are left behind — the “leftovers” — deal with it?

This is the premise of Tom Perrotta’s new novel. The setting is a small suburban New England town. The principal characters are people many of us would recognize, ordinary people. By getting into their heads, Perrotta explores each person’s reaction to this apparently random, unexplainable event, while following the course of their lives afterward.

Tom Perrotta has been crowned the chronicler of American suburban life. My favorite two novels by him, The Wishbones (1997) and Little Children (2004), could be read as a mini-epic of modern life in the suburbs, pre- and post-marriage. I like Perrotta as a writer, and his writing never fails to entertain me. His books are quick reads, and his characters are people I could know. But I keep wishing he would do something bigger, something larger, explore a new direction.

I was hoping that The Leftovers would be that departure for him. The premise is a radically different one for a man who has previously written about wedding bands, high school elections, and adultery, more the province of science fiction or fantasy than literary fiction. But once the premise is established, The Leftovers is not that much different from Perrotta’s other books. The issues he probes are still the ordinary problems of ordinary people: a failing marriage, a cheating husband, teenagers struggling for identity. Only in the The Leftovers, these problems are magnified through the lens of unfathomable tragedy.

Like the characters in the novel, I really didn’t know how to react to this Rapture-like event that Perrotta has established. That’s because no explanation is given for it; each person has to come up with his or her own rationale for what happened. Normally, I would appreciate this kind of ambiguity, but Perrotta’s premise is so vague that I felt like I had no way to connect to it. The characters could be reacting to any large, random tragedy, such as another September 11. There is no authorial sense of the supernatural here, even though this was clearly a supernatural event. I felt I needed a little more guidance from the author as to how to process this, so that I could relate better to the characters and their different forms of grieving.

Perhaps Perrotta meant for the reader to feel adrift. Clearly, his characters do, and that feeling is pervasive in modern life, which Perrotta consistently holds up a mirror to reflect. He is a gifted writer, and this is a solid novel. I was just left wanting something more.

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