23 December 2011

The Leftovers, by Tom Perrotta

It's probably because of my recent completion of Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel, that anything that came after would feel like a breeze of a read. I was feeling pretty invincible anyway, and The Leftovers came through as a thoughtful read that begs to be taken in at once, all during one sitting. While introspective enough to give me pause, it wasn't overbearing.

After a sudden and unexplained disappearance of an unidentified number of people around the world, the residents of one small town called Mapleton, try to piece life back together again. Into this aftermath of a new post-apocalyptic world three years later, some join a cult called the Guilty Remnant, requiring members to take a vow of silence and decide to live in a community with others who also believe that the old world is gone and the new one is upon them (which is also a world they believe won't last very long for anything from the past to matter). Others fall into a wild party life, or some choose to follow the last-minute prophet who springs up in the midst of confusion. The rest just try to move on. In a world that is now trying to simultaneously figure out what caused this mass disappearance, those who haven't disappeared have to pick up the pieces and deal with the feelings of loss, denial, and guilt.

At the heart of this story is the Garvey family, a family of four who didn't lose anyone in their immediate family, but have been jarred in an emotional way. Jill, the young teenage daughter of Kevin and Laurie was an "eyewitness" to her best friend disappearing, and their older son Tom, can't quite seem to feel tethered to the way society once was. Kevin and Laurie try to do their best, but ultimately, each of them make choices that take them all in completely different directions. And when Laurie makes a drastic decision to join the cult of silence, the Guilty Remnant, it leaves Kevin and Jill to make order out of their own lives without her. Moving out of the family home, Laurie takes on this new world with others who are dressed in white, smoke cigarettes to declare their presence, and patiently stalk Mapleton residents to be the town's silent reminder that the end is near.

Around town are a variety of characters who are each affected by the disappearance in a variety of ways, skillfully created by Tom Perrotta, and all of them heartbreaking. This is my first time reading his work and I was pleasantly surprised and impressed with the balance between good and bad, order and chaos, and the overall flow of the story. It kept my interest and I didn't want to put it down. For you fast readers out there, it's going to be a snap to finish this one in a day.

But (and I hate to admit this) I was also just a teensy bit disappointed because I was eagerly turning the pages when I first started this, so it's probably too harsh of a word to use. I'm new to Perrotta's work, so while I initially thought this would be a story which would allow the reader to understand what happened and why, I was surprised that instead it became more about the exploration of small-town suburbia, and the sometimes mistaken impression that a big house and car doesn't always mean that everything makes sense or that one's life is fulfilled. I know now that Perrotta is known for this unhinging dive into the psyche of "things that are supposed to be just fine but really aren't," and in retrospect, I can appreciate the artistry of what was accomplished in this work. It's not to say that this story isn't poignant, or that the characters aren't real; quite the opposite. In fact, my mouth hung open with the genuineness of each character's confusion and how they handled it; it was an honest approach to the possible scenario of, to put it bluntly, "What the hell happened?"

My sense of detachment to the book, though, is minimal and was more in the sense that I felt I was waiting for something to happen, to be explained. To have an answer. I know that's how it was supposed to be designed, to leave you contemplating bigger questions than just the answer to, "No, really, but why?" I realize because of this reaction that both the Guilty Remnant cult from the book and another group called the Barefoot People, would guffaw and scoff at me. But I was anticipating something that would be the explanation of a lot of the mysteries of the story, and perhaps that was my problem. As I mull it over now, I'm not at all unhappy with the book at all, I'm just a little dazed. I loved the book for its characters, the dialogue, the interesting moments and snippets of each of their lives as they try to create some sort of understanding in the midst of the ambiguity. But as the reader, I wanted to understand more, get more of a foundation, other than just closing the book and feeling like one of the many confused residents of the town of Mapleton.

But, please, don't get me wrong; I don't want you to think this story isn't good because it really is. I'm conflicted simply because I feel the story is so powerful, mesmerizing in some instances, and heartbreaking in others. I probably came into it with a different expectation for the end result, so I advise you with this if you've not experienced Tom Perrotta's work before, or if you think this book might be a suspenseful thriller: This is a quiet story, fused at its center with the humble defiance and strength of the average and everyday person. And that's a beautiful thing. To be able to capture a glimpse into what makes each of us important, unique, and ultimately strong, is no easy thing, and Perrotta handled it with a deftness that made it completely obvious to this novice-Perrotta reader why he has quite the fan following. Just don't go into it with the expectation that it will be a fast-moving novel with a lot of twists and turns or even, a lot of practical insight or answers, as more of it is a philosophical process, or just more a book to experience the characters alone. So in that, it is absolutely worth it.

I'd highly recommend this for a book club; this story is perfect for discussions and debates.

FTC Disclosure:
I received this advanced reader's edition from St. Martin's Press, in exchange for my honest review. Thank you!

Others wrote:
Sophisticated Dorkiness
Book Addiction
Fizzy Thoughts
Literate Housewife (audio review)
Nomad Reader

Watch this blog, this book is going to be included in a future Giveaway...!

About the Author
Tom Perrotta is the incomparable author of The Abstinence Teacher, Little Children, Joe College, Election, The Wishbones, and Bad Haircut. His most recent novel, The Leftovers, has already received numerous accolades and was named one of the "Best Books of 2011" by O the Oprah Magazine, Kirkus Reviews, Amazon.com, GQ, NPR (Fresh Air), The Washington Post, The Seattle Times, and The Book Page. He is married to Mary Granfield, and they live with their three children in Boston, Massachusetts.

Click here to visit the author on his website.
Click here to be added to the author's mailing list.


  1. I liked this one (not loved) as a had a few issues with it, but did enjoy listening to it.

    Happy Holidays Natalie

  2. I had to laugh at your first statement because I was just thinking the same thing. I read Wolf Hall too. I'm currently reading The World We Found by Thrity Umrigar, and I feel like I'm flying through it.

  3. My husband was looking at this one. Considering I haven't yet bought him a gift, this is looking like a good present!

  4. How interesting that the book turned into an exploration of suburbia. I have a feeling I'd like it.

  5. I just got this one on audio, and am not sure when I will get the chance to listen to it. I do love Perrotta, and from what you've said, this books sounds a lot like his other works. I do think I would enjoy it, and will have to make some time for it soon. Great review on this one, and very perceptive insights. I enjoyed reading this!

  6. I have Perrotta on my must-read-in-2012 list and I still can't decide WHICH book. I want to read them all. Thanks for the sug to select for book club.

  7. Very interesting review. I've been debating whether to read it, but I fear I would be disappointed also!

  8. I loved this review, Natalie, because it's so honest. I have to admit it, I am never satisfied when an author leaves me with a huge unknown at the end of a book. I know, I know, sometimes life doesn't give you answers, but that's part of what I'm escaping from with a book :). But as you said, it doesn't necessarily ruin a book for me either.

  9. I've been hearing about this book over and over but still haven't been convinced enough to pick it up. I like how you say it makes you think but doesn't give any answers. Sounds interesting!

  10. I'm looking forward to reading this and will definitely keep in mind that some of those big questions won't necessarily be answered. I do like how Perotta explores characters in his books. I would recommend Little Children or The Abstinence Teacher by him!

  11. Great review, Natalie! I think you provided an honest review, and I'm looking forward to reading this one as well as some of the other Perrotta choices on my shelves.