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The Leftovers

December 6, 2011

The Leftovers, by Tom Perrotta, is a book I couldn’t wait to read, and perhaps because my hopes were too high, it was a disappointment. What an interesting premise, and what a sad mess it turned out.

The plot involves people all over the world suddenly disappearing, and no one knows what to think, except that it’s a Rapture-like event. But if the Godly were taken, then it’s sure hard to tell the good from the bad. Lots of new, quasi-religious groups are formed to help the folks who are left deal with the holes in their lives. Ultimately, though, they have to go on with little help, no closure, and no explanation.

Perhaps I’d have liked the book better if I hadn’t been reading it during the week of my father’s memorial service. But I don’t think so. It’s not satire, which is what I was hoping for. It’s not literary fiction, which might have been what the author, whose previous novels I’ve enjoyed, was hoping for. It reminds me of nothing so much as Under the Dome, in that it focuses on the sad little lives of people I don’t like very much, in a strange situation I would very much like to know more about.

I got to the point where I couldn’t wait to read this novel after reading a review that looks at it metaphorically as a response to September 11, 2001, but that didn’t work so well for me, considering that the situation is explicitly compared to September 11:
“The coverage felt different from that of September 11th, when the networks had shown the burning towers over and over. October 14th was more amorphous, harder to pin down: There were massive highway pileups, some train wrecks, numerous small-plane and helicopter crashes—luckily, no big passenger jets went down in the United States, though several had to be landed by terrified co-pilots, and one by a flight attendant who’d become a folk hero for a little while, one bright spot in a sea of darkness….”

The best part of the book delivers the same pleasure I get from reading Dante’s Inferno—this author sorts the sheep from the goats:
“…departed celebrities—John Mellencamp and Jennifer Lopez, Shaq and Adam Sandler, Miss Texas and Greta Van Susteren, Vladimir Putin and the Pope….According to the Food Network, the small world of superstar chefs had been disproportionately hard hit.”

Perrotta is a good writer. Over and over, he sensitively describes “the unreality of pretending things were more or less okay, that they’d hit a bump on the road and should just keep on going, attending to their duties, uttering their empty phrases, enjoying the simple pleasures that the world still insisted on offering.”
I especially liked these parts on our two-day road trip home from the memorial service, as waitresses and motel clerks, one after the other, cheerily inquired if I’d had “a good holiday.” I made polite and non-committal remarks in response, only to snap the next day, when one of the students who works for me asked the same question and I told her a little bit about how I’d spent my holiday…Too Much Information.

The novel gets sadder and sadder as the plot unfolds. There were places that brought me to tears, and it wasn’t all just leftover emotion from “the holiday weekend.” One of them was the description of a painfully thoughtful gift from a daughter to her mother, “a cheap plastic lighter…with three words painted on the barrel in what must have been Wite-Out.” Another was the description of a grown son by his father, a son who dropped out of college and will not even tell his parents where he is: “he was my little boy. I was always so proud of him.”

The point at which this novel comes closest to satiric is when the high-school-age sister of the son who dropped out thinks of her brother’s experience trying to read The Scarlet Letter: “she’d come home from school one afternoon and found him stabbing his paperback edition with a steak knife, the tip of the blade penetrating the cover and sinking far enough down into the early chapters that he sometimes had trouble pulling it out. When she asked what he was doing, he explained in a calm and serious voice that he was trying to kill the book before it killed him.” Even though I liked reading The Scarlet Letter, I liked this story.

If I had liked these characters better, perhaps I could have wallowed in the beautiful melancholy of their story as a whole. The novel produced too much sadness for no particular reason, though.

I bought The Leftovers in hardback, which is what I meant when I said I couldn’t wait, so if you think you might like it better, say that in the comments. I’ll do a random drawing and send my copy to the winner.  (The drawing will include any comment left in the next week, by midnight on Dec. 13.)

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22 Comments leave one →
  1. December 6, 2011 6:13 am

    I will vie for that hardcover. I have been meaning to read Mr. Perrotta for ages. Since Election. I won’t say I’ve avoided him but that he just hasn’t yet hit the top of the pile. I’m making a list for 2012 of authors that I have yet to experience and hope to. Mary Roach is on the list, Rushdie, too. Can’t think of anyone else but I know that’s more.

    oh, and I keep thinking Perrotta is ‘funny’. Is it the funny-but-despairing or am I just wrong?

  2. December 6, 2011 7:05 am

    I thought Perrotta was funny in The Abstinence Teacher (here’s my review: https://necromancyneverpays.wordpress.com/2008/04/10/sex-ed/).
    I’ll put you in the drawing!

  3. freshhell permalink
    December 6, 2011 11:52 am

    I’ve read none of his books. Put me in the drawing, please!

    • December 7, 2011 8:43 am

      Okay. At his best he has a wry sense of perspective, which you will enjoy.

  4. December 6, 2011 2:11 pm

    Don’t add me to the drawing, I already own a copy and hope to read it soon. I’m so sorry about your father. It doesn’t matter what age you are, losing a parent is incredibly difficult. I’m glad I read your review before starting the book though. I found him funny in the Abstinence Teacher, but much darker in Little Children. I’ll expect the darker side from him with this book.

    • December 7, 2011 8:45 am

      Thanks for the consolation. It may well be that I wasn’t prepared for this much darkness.

  5. December 6, 2011 2:23 pm

    Put me in. I know you didn’t like the book, and yet your description makes me want to read it. Hmm.

  6. trapunto permalink
    December 6, 2011 8:11 pm

    These books: “focuses on the sad little lives of people I don’t like very much, in a strange situation I would very much like to know more about.” I seem to read so many! Not even necessarily sci fi. The last was a domestic . . . thriller? drama? set in early 80’s Ireland called The Half Mother. Almost frustrating enough to make me write a review, but not quite. You need to get your hands on something awesome, now. It’s high time for some awesome fiction in your life.

    • December 7, 2011 8:46 am

      Your wish is my command. As I read this comment, I was finishing some of the most awesome fiction I’ve read this year!

  7. December 6, 2011 9:15 pm

    I’ve come to the conclusion that I rather like books about “the sad little lives of people I don’t like very much,” especially if they’re in a strange situation. Although, really, I didn’t dislike these characters; I just didn’t actively like them, if that makes sense. What I really liked about the book was that I thought Perrotta handled these not-so-likable characters with such sensitivity. (Also, my expectations weren’t especially high, and I wasn’t looking for funny.)

    And no need to enter me for the book. I already have it.

    • December 7, 2011 8:47 am

      He is sensitive to their faults without glossing over any of them. Maybe that hit too close to home, too.

  8. December 7, 2011 7:54 am

    Thanks. Thanks for lots of things. You rock.

  9. December 7, 2011 2:30 pm

    I’m sorry you didn’t like this one. I totally forgot about the explicit 9/11 comparison… that’s what happens when you write the review long, long after you finish the book. The book definitely is sad, and even though I thought the ending was a little off, I did think it ended with, not exactly optimism, but forward momentum. I felt like the characters were going to be ok, eventually, which is I think perhaps what I grabbed on to.

    • December 7, 2011 2:58 pm

      There was definitely forward momentum, and I think that kind of clinched it for me. It was like when your pet dies and someone says “well, just get another one.”

      • December 7, 2011 2:59 pm

        But, of course, I don’t blame you for my disappointment. You didn’t make me read the book, and my dislike doesn’t invalidate what you said, except maybe the 9/11 reference leapt out at me more.

        • December 8, 2011 10:18 pm

          Good, I’m glad about that 🙂

          Could the forward momentum thing be a symptom of different circumstances? I was reading at a time when I needed a “things will be ok” message, whereas your sad circumstances made that more frustrating than hopeful? Not to over-psychoanalyze or anything, just thinking aloud…

          • December 8, 2011 10:35 pm

            Yes, the circumstances affected my experience of reading, and yes, I think you’ve put your finger on it, except I wouldn’t say it was frustrating, exactly. It’s like the ending of a poem I posted a few days ago, with the ironic line “nothing bad will happen.” Sometimes things aren’t okay, and even dressing all in white and smoking cigarettes (or all in black, as the Victorians did for a year of mourning) isn’t going to fix them.

  10. December 7, 2011 8:36 pm

    I’m sorry you didn’t like it as much as I did. I didn’t expect a satire though … just Perrotta’s uncanny look into the details of suburban life with a really weird twist of the Rapture-like event. But then, the mood of when you read a book can really effect your view of it. I ended up hating a book that many people liked because I read it too close to when my mom passed away.

    • December 7, 2011 9:36 pm

      A lot of my reaction may be due to already being sad. The whole “details of suburban life” thing rings less true to me in this novel than in his previous ones, though. Like the ending, the runaway teenager victimized by a father or stepfather is such a cliche, as is the mother paralyzed with guilt because her last words to her kids were angry ones. Gah. Spare me.

  11. December 19, 2011 3:28 pm

    Sorry, I forgot I’d set a deadline until I unearthed this book from a pile on my desk, where I’d left it to remind me to mail it off.
    And the winner is…number three, ReadersGuide, who will be getting my copy soon and should feel free to keep it or send it on to FreshHell and Care.

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