CBR-V Review #16: The Leftovers by Tom Perrotta

Why I Read It: Listened, actually–I needed an audiobook for my commute, didn’t have anything in mind, and thought this looked good. Plus Election and Little Children are great books.

My Rating: 4 stars

Summary: The Leftovers takes place  a year or so after what is known as the “Great Departure,” a Rapture-like event which involved thousands of normal people across the world disappearing suddenly, vanishing into thin air. The focus is on the Garvey family: Kevin, Lori, and their two children, Tom and Jill. Tom has run away to follow a pseudo-prophet named Holy Wayne; Lori has joined the Guilty Remnant, a religious movement that involves isolation from society and a vow of silence; former good-girl Jill has fallen in with a bad crowd and is failing out of school. Nora, the other main character, is a woman who lost her husband and two children, and finds her life spiralling out of control. We follow them as they grapple with the aftermath of the event, trying to center themselves in a world that no longer makes sense.

My Review: I actually liked this book a lot more than I thought I would. It’s gotten pretty mixed reviews but I really, really enjoyed it. No one out there writes about suburban dysfunction the way Perrotta does–I really think Little Children is the best example of that, but it’s the central theme in most of his books and he portrays it well.

Although this book has a supernatural/religious element to it, Perrotta pulls it off by grounding his characters and plot in the real, tangible world, the world of Youtube and Facebook, of the Au Bon Pain in Harvard Square, of familiar people and places and things. This isn’t some made-up world that closely resembles our own–it is our world. That makes the central premise (what would happen if the Rapture actually did happen) much more powerful and, to an extent, believable. Things like that don’t happen in our world, and that’s why it affects the characters–and the reader–so strongly.

I think Perrotta made a smart choice by using five distinct voices to frame the narrative, giving the reader insight into the far-reaching effects the Departure has on both an individual and societal level. You really get a sense of how people’s responses to tragedy vary wildly–some people choose to ignore it and move on like nothing happened, some remain in a state of emotional paralysis, some run away. There’s no one real answer or correct way of handling these things, and Perrotta handles each one beautifully, presenting each character in an honest yet compassionate light. All of the characters are flawed in recognizable and realistic ways, which is pretty typical of Perrotta, and most aren’t necessarily even that likable  Perrotta just has a great way of making you see other people’s perspectives and sympathize with them even if they do questionable things.

This is, ultimately, a novel about grief, which I think is why it succeeds. Ignoring the supernatural element for a moment, these are essentially real people dealing with very real emotions in very real ways. I liked that discussions of the how/what/why of the Departure are relegated to the background–Perrotta knows that the real story is in the characters’ responses to the event, not the event itself. While the curious part of me wants to know what exactly the Departure was, and what it meant, I recognize that that’s almost the point of the story. The reader is in the same state of confusion and uncertainty that the characters are, and it would have been a bit of a cop-out for Perrotta to have explained it in detail. His message seems to be that the world is a crazy place, and crazy things happen in it–and in the end, there’s nothing we can do about it.

I’ve read a lot of complaints about the lack of conclusion to most of the storylines, but I think it’s wrapped up beautifully. Not neatly, not clearly, but in a way that makes sense in the context of the overall theme of uncertainty. I had a sense of where the characters were going, and I almost didn’t want to know more than that. The ending mimics life, in a way–you never really know for sure what’s going to happen, you just have a sense of the path you’re on. The only storyline that I wish was a bit more fleshed out was Lori’s, as some events that occur towards the end of the book aren’t really explained and I was left feeling cheated out of an explanation.

Should You Read It? Yes. Perrotta is reliably awesome, and this book is funny, heart-breaking, and beautifully written.

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