Tom Perrotta (Facebook)
St. Martin’s Press (2011), Hardcover (ISBN 0312358342 / 9780312358341)
Fiction, 368 pages
Source: Secondhand ARC received from another blogger (my apologies for not tagging you, but I’ve had this one for a few years and can’t remember who passed it on to me–thank you anyway!)
We’re Netflix binge-ers at our house, but we don’t subscribe to any of the premium-cable channels. This means when one of them decides to adapt a book for television, I’m not able to watch…but sometimes it gives me the nudge I need to read it. It doesn’t always work that way, though. It still had not happened with A Song of Ice and Fire/Game of Thrones; I’m thinking that at this point, I’ll wait until George R.R. Martin finishes writing the whole series and/or I have a year to commit to reading nothing else, whichever comes first. I’m hoping to read Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam Trilogy before it makes it to television; I have the first two books in paperback already, and just need to complete the set.
But I’ve had a copy of Tom Perrotta’s The Leftovers on my “galleys that are WAY past their pub date” shelves for nearly three years, and the premiere of HBO’s series based on the novel made me decide it was time to take it off and open it up.
The premise of The Leftovers is epic and vaguely dystopian, as the novel examines what has become of society in the three years since the “Sudden Departure,” a Rapture-like event in which 2% of the world’s population disappeared with no warning–in the time it took to turn one’s head, or in Nora Durst’s case, to step into the kitchen and return to the dinner table to discover her entire family gone. However, the story plays out on an intimate scale, as Perrotta filters that examination through the perspective of Nora’s neighbors in suburban Mapleton, NY. The Garvey family did not lose any members on that October 14, but have nonetheless been fragmented in the aftermath.
While some of the characters in The Leftovers are still seeking explanations for the disappearances, the novel itself isn’t especially interested in digging through that. Rather, Perrotta’s protagonists are dealing with loss and grief and a range of responses to them, from resistance to acceptance and back again; facing the choice to move on or stay stuck; struggling with survivors’ guilt and abandonment, and trying to honor the memories of those they loved.
I realize this all sounds terribly depressing and heavy, but it actually didn’t have that effect on me. There’s not a lot that happens in The Leftovers from a plot-momentum perspective, but I found it moving in different ways, and even darkly humorous in spots. The characters are conflicted and compelling, and the novel’s emotional beats ring true. Granted, none of us have lost loved ones in a Rapture-like event, but we’ve all had to process loss of one kind or another, and that makes the novel approachable. There’s a deeply human work of fiction under The Leftovers’ apocalyptic wrappings.
What if your life was upended in an instant? What if your spouse or your child disappeared right in front of your eyes? Was it the Rapture or something even more difficult to explain? How would you rebuild your life in the wake of such a devastating event? These are the questions confronting the bewildered citizens of Mapleton, a formerly comfortable suburban community that lost over a hundred people in the Sudden Departure. Kevin Garvey, the new mayor, wants to move forward, to bring a sense of renewed hope and purpose to his traumatized neighbors, even as his own family disintegrates. His wife, Laurie, has left him to enlist in the Guilty Remnant, a homegrown cult whose members take a vow of silence but haunt the town’s streets as “living reminders” of God’s judgment. His son, Tom, is gone, too, dropping out of college to follow a crooked “prophet” who calls himself Holy Wayne. Only his teenaged daughter, Jill, remains, and she’s definitely not the sweet “A” student she used to be.
Through the prism of a single family, Tom Perrotta illuminates a familiar America made strange by grief and apocalyptic anxiety. The Leftovers is a powerful and deeply moving book about regular people struggling to hold onto a belief in their futures.
From Chapter One:
“IT WAS A GOOD DAY for a parade, sunny and unseasonably warm, the sky a Sunday school cartoon of heaven. Not too long ago, people would have felt the need to make a nervous crack about weather like this—Hey, they’d say, maybe this global warming isn’t such a bad thing after all!—but these days no one bothered much about the hole in the ozone layer or the pathos of a world without polar bears. It seemed almost funny in retrospect, all that energy wasted fretting about something so remote and uncertain, an ecological disaster that might or might not come to pass somewhere way off in the distant future, long after you and your children and your children’s children had lived out your allotted time on earth and gone to wherever it was you went when it was all over.
“Despite the anxiety that had dogged him all morning, Mayor Kevin Garvey found himself gripped by an unexpected mood of nostalgia as he walked down Washington Boulevard toward the high school parking lot, where the marchers had been told to assemble. It was half an hour before showtime, the floats lined up and ready to roll, the marching band girding itself for battle, peppering the air with a discordant overture of bleats and toots and halfhearted drumrolls. Kevin had been born and raised in Mapleton, and he couldn’t help thinking about Fourth of July parades back when everything still made sense, half the town lined up along Main Street while the other half—Little Leaguers, scouts of both genders, gimpy Veterans of Foreign Wars trailed by the Ladies Auxiliary—strode down the middle of the road, waving to the spectators as if surprised to see them there, as if this were some kind of kooky coincidence rather than a national holiday. In Kevin’s memory, at least, it all seemed impossibly loud and hectic and innocent—fire trucks, tubas, Irish step dancers, baton twirlers in sequined costumes, one year even a squadron of fez-bedecked Shriners scooting around in those hilarious midget cars. Afterward there were softball games and cookouts, a sequence of comforting rituals culminating in the big fireworks display over Fielding Lake, hundreds of rapt faces turned skyward, oohing and wowing at the sizzling pinwheels and slow-blooming starbursts that lit up the darkness, reminding everyone of who they were and where they belonged and why it was all good.
“Today’s event—the first annual Departed Heroes’ Day of Remembrance and Reflection, to be precise—wasn’t going to be anything like that.”