In The Leftovers, Tom Perrotta uses a startling premise to produce a realist portrait of the fault lines that fracture modern society. The story is set in a small suburban town somewhere on the east coast. It is a few years after the Sudden Departure, when millions of people, instantly and without explanation, vanished from the Earth. Was it the Rapture spoken of in the Bible? But then, many who vanished were not Christians. Mr. Perrotta leaves that question to hang, while he explores the effects of the traumatic event on a town full of ordinary people.
This isn’t a book with a lot of plot twists. People move through their lives. Some try to keep things normal while others form cult movements. A messianic figure may have a genuine gift or he may be a charlatan; his unborn child may or may not be the savior of mankind. Some funny stuff happens in between the darker moments. One memorable character is the woman who lost her husband and two kids. She watches Sponge Bob Squarepants because it was the show her vanished children liked. She is obsessive, but organized about it. At first, she goes through a marathon of cartoon watching, but soon begins to ration the number of daily episodes to keep them fresh. Her attempts to rebuild a social life are the ungainly efforts of any recently divorced person, writ large. It is safer to retreat but hard to be alone, even if all you can do is have a guy watch cartoons with you.
Perrotta has been called the Balzac of the suburbs, a Cheever for our times, and a lot of other heavy titles that reviewers like to hang on authors, as if to see whether they can bear the weight. I haven’t read his other books, though I gather The Leftovers is something of a departure for him. But the book conveys humor and affection for people, even while it shows them as deeply flawed. The author gives us the common threads that we share with his characters, which is what makes the book so readable.
Now an HBO TV series entering its 2nd season.
Check availability on The Leftovers by Tom Perrotta
About the reviewer: Pam Blittersdorf is the former head of reference at Tredyffrin Public Library who now calls Massachusetts home. Pam is an avid bike rider.