Monday, February 4, 2013

The Leftovers ~ Tom Perrotta

I first picked up The Leftovers while I was at the library with a little boy I babysit.  He was happily occupied with the library's computer games, so I managed to get through two chapters (it's a quick read) and was quickly engaged.  It wasn't my library though, so I couldn't borrow it and it was several months before I came across it again, this time on a clearance table, and even longer before I returned to it.  That's a lot of build-up, but it's about a world gone wrong and I love worlds gone wrong (what does that say about me?), so it's worth the wait.  Right?

The Leftovers takes place in our world, with one exception.  Before the start of the novel there was an event called "the Sudden Departure," in which millions of people all over the world vanished at the same time.  It was rapture-like, except there was no ascension and no pattern - it wasn't all of the Christians or even necessarily particularly good people.  The people who vanished were random, connected by only this one moment in time.  Nobody knows why it happened and the reader is left asking the same question as those left behind - "Why?"

Though life goes on much as usual afterwards, some cults pop up in the aftermath of the Sudden Departure: the "Guilty Remnant," silent people dressed in white with an ever-present cigarette in their hand, shadowing people from their old lives, who believe that normal life is over and all they can do is wait for the end; the Healing Hug Movement, a group that follows Holy Wayne, a kind of Jesus rock star who takes on people's grief over their losses with his hugs; and the Barefoot People, dirty hippy-styled folk with bulls eyes on their foreheads who believe that pleasure is the ultimate pursuit and purpose of life.  But at the heart of this novel is the regular people, those who keep going about their lives while dealing with their losses.

What's interesting is that the family at the heart of this novel, the Garveys, didn't lose anybody in the Sudden Departure itself.  Nobody vanished, though friends did, yet the family is torn apart just the same.  Shortly after returning to college after the Departure, the son, Tom, joins the Healing Hug Movement, believing in the truth of Holy Wayne.  After a year, the mother, Laurie, who had previously mocked the idea of the Rapture, leaves the family to join the Guilty Remnant and find some answers in the silence.  Left with a father who doesn't know what to do, star student Jill makes friends with the "wrong" crowd, stops going to school, and shaves her head (the ultimate sign of defection, dontcha know).  Only Kevin, the father, seems to have not abandoned his family - it's them who have left him, and entirely by their own choices.

The book is...okay.  I had some pretty high expectation for it, so I guess that I'm partially to blame, but I was just underwhelmed.  The thing is, the Garveys are just another family who has fallen apart - we don't need this whole backstory to examine their reactions.  There are some other important characters whose lives are torn apart because of the Departure itself, but their grief seems normal, expected, not needing this backstory.  The cults are where the real story is - what drives people to join them, what they believe, what they hope to accomplish.  Holy Wayne could never have achieved his status if not for the Departure, but we only get snippets of his story.  The Guilty Remnant are dropping like flies, but we hardly see why.  The novel would have been greatly improved through a broader focus on the cults - without them, the Sudden Departure isn't necessary to the story.

A complaint I had throughout the novel was Perrotta's narrow understanding of women.  He didn't enter his female characters' psyches in any unique way.  They're almost all housewives who get fulfillment by going to yoga.  What are the chances that all of these women go to yoga?  Where is Perrotta from?!?!  (Garwood, NJ - see below.)  If not housewives, they're young and controversial and don't follow the rules, but in a totally humdrum way.  As a result, the women are completely underdeveloped, making the male characters the most interesting, though still difficult for me to engage with.

One aspect of the book that I really liked was that it was clearly set in New Jersey.  Though we're never explicitly told where Mapleton is, it's pretty obvious from all the references to Rutgers University, the Garden State Parkway, and the Jersey Shore.  Even though I don't feel that much attachment to my home state, this is the key to my heart!  Make the setting familiar, and I will keep reading even if I don't want to.  In fact, the mall scene was clearly imagined as the mall where my husband currently works and where I worked in high school.  This makes me happy.

The book was by no means bad, and it was a great light, quick, airplane read.  It just wasn't what I expected and could have been better for me personally.  This was my first novel by Perrotta and to be honest, it doesn't have me jumping up and down for more, but I'd give him another chance in the future.

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