Thursday, January 12, 2012

The Leftovers by Tom Perrotta

The Leftovers by Tom Perrotta
Date Published: August 30, 2011
ISBN: 978-0312358341
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Pages: 368
Genre: Contemporary Fiction
Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Book Summary: What if the Rapture happened and you got left behind? Or what if it wasn't the Rapture at all, but something murkier, a burst of mysterious, apparently random disappearances that shattered the world in a single moment, dividing history into Before and After, leaving no one unscathed? How would you rebuild your life in the wake of such a devastating event?
This is the question 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 speed up the healing process, to bring a sense of renewed hope and purpose to his traumatized neighbors, even as his own family falls apart. 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 streets of town as "living reminders" of God's judgment. His son, Tom, is gone, too, dropping out of college to follow a sketchy prophet by the name of 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, Perrotta illuminates a familiar America made strange by grief and apocalyptic anxiety. The Leftovers is a powerful and deeply moving book about people struggling to hold onto a belief in their own futures.

My Thoughts: The Leftovers is a fascinating novel and one I thought about long after I finished it. The story is set three years after the occurrence of a bizarre, Rapture-like event being called the "Sudden Departure" ('SD'). On the day of SD, people all over the world simply vanished. One second they were there, the next they were gone. There was no rhyme or reason to which people vanished either: people of all ages, races, religions, and ways of life, believers and non-believers, the good, bad and indifferent, disappeared. The people remaining, the "leftovers" are bewildered, dismayed, angry, jealous, despairing and embittered as they struggle to cope and make some semblance of a life for themselves in the years following this strange occurrence.

I didn’t know what to expect from this novel after reading the prologue. I wasn't particularly interested in a book about how our country and the rest of the world deal with the rapture-like event. I prefer more personal, character strong stories. I needn't have worried. Had I read more books by Perrotta, something I plan to do, I would’ve known he likes to scrutinize the hearts and minds of average middle-class individuals living in the suburbs. Perrotta most often focuses on assessing the reactions and behavior of indviduals in situations recognizable and bizarre. True to form, in The Leftovers Perrotta trains his keen eye on the Garvey Family: Kevin, Laurie, Tom and Jill, well-known residents of Mapleton, NJ. The Garveys are typical of many families living in the suburbs. Their familiarity made me feel like I was able to relate to them. The more I read about them, the more I card for the Garveys, even when they irritated me, and I became invested in what happened to them.

Perrotta’s talent for creating characters who are interesting because they are flawed, complex and dysfunctional. He has a keen eye for how people behave and the complexities of personality which is exceedingly evident in the Garveys. This family is very fortunate not to have lost anyone during the SD but you'd never know that from their behavior. In the years following the SD, Kevin, Laurie, Tom and Jill fracture and fall away from each other. Their family unit disintegrates instead of bonding and becoming stronger as the years pass. It’s not surprising that Tom disappears and cuts off contact with his family or that Jill questions everything in her life and rejects the way she was living before the SD given how their parents behave.

Laurie expresses concern about her children shortly after the SD but as more time passes she inexplicably distances herself from her family, finally leaving them to join a cult. Kevin seems to be coping well early in the book, taking things in stride. But as the novel progresses, I realized that he doesn’t act as if he’s all that upset about what’s happened to his family. Kevin doesn’t fight for his wife to stay home, he doesn’t search for his son and his fear that Jill will leave home causes him to stop parenting her, becoming more of a friend and roommate. The support and love Jill needs from her mother isn’t available and her father who is available to her, doesn’t offer her the love and support she wants. I hoped for a while that Kevin would sit down with Jill and talk to her, tell her he loved her and bond with her, until I realized this was never going to happen. For Kevin the SD offers an opportunity for a new life, a second chance. He gets a new job as mayor, goes out every night drinking and socializing and begins searching for a new partner while his wife, rather than risk the pain of suddenly losing her family one day, takes control of the situation and protects herself by abandoning them. Suffice to say the Garveys, apparently, are not the kind of family that grows closer and stronger in times of crisis.

The Garveys, their behavior, thoughts and actions are fascinating. I felt the same way about several other characters in the book, particularly Nora, a woman Kevin connects with and begins dating. I still don’t totally understand the Garveys and some of their friends and acquaintances but that's okay with me. Like human beings, they are complex, multi-faceted individuals with quirks, idiosyncrasies, good characteristics and faults. And I think this highlights Persotta's insightfulness and how brilliant, clever and astute he is at transforming these observations into parts of his ingenious characters.

The Leftovers isn't just grim and depressing. There are many scenes where Perrotta is witty and amusing and I particularly enjoyed his use of satire. Holy Wayne is an example of the charismatic preachers many people follow and believe in without question as Tom does but then express dismay when scandal follows. The Barefoot People, a group Tom latches onto when disappointed by Holy Wayne, exemplifies how ridiculous some of these cults are yet they proliferate because people are so anxious to belong to a group, to fit in. Perrotta looks at the darker side of some of these cults with the group Laurie joins, the Guilty Remnant. This cult requires members to take a vow of silence, wear white, smoke incessantly and stalk non-members on a nightly basis. Followers of groups like these, as Perrotta demonstrates with acerbic, disturbing wit, don’t question what the rules mean and the leaders rely on this blind adherence. In a pivotal scene, Perrotta shows the kind of reprehensible actions that can result from the ignorant mindlessness of followers just looking to belong. By the time Laurie is called on by the leaders of the Guilty Remnant, to take a major step as a member of the cult, she’s in too deep to turn back.

Identity and the idea that people aren't often who they purport to be, that there's more to them than meets the eye is one of the themes that threads its way through these pages. Perrotta touches on a myriad of other themes throughout The Leftovers including loss, survival, beliefs, loyalty, friendship, family, love and connection. I think I could talk about this book for hours and still barely begin to cover all of its facets. It wouldn't surprise me if everyone who reads this book gets a little something different from it. One thing I think everyone will agree upon is how fascinating, intriguing and enthralling are the characters and this story. I am looking forward to reading some of Perrotta's other books and am hopeful I’ll enjoy more of his insight into human beings and their personalities.

Tom Perrotta’s website

I won an ARC of The Leftovers from Jenners at Life...With Books.
Thank you so much, Jenners!!


  1. I am listening to this one on audio right now, so I briefly skimmed your review, but will come back to it soon. It's a great book so far, and typical of what I have come to expect from Perotta. I will have to discuss it with you when I am done!

  2. This sounds fascinating, even if it is grim. I like the fact that everyone would get something different out of it. It sounds like it would make a great book club pick.

  3. I have never read this author but this one sounds worth a look. Thanks.

  4. I was saddened by the overall theme of loss. Especially, the loss of a family. I could not accept that the mother left that daughter behind by joining that cult.

  5. I'm so glad you liked it as much as I did. Perrotta has a way of combining sadness and humor in a way I find so appealing. If you want to read more of his stuff, I'd highly recommend Little Children and The Abstinence Teacher.

  6. I'm glad you liked this one. I listened to the audio and found it very enjoyable, while I borrowed the audio to a friend of mine and she quit listening to it! I think the writing was wonderful!

  7. I've read one of Perotta's books and really liked it. I have this one too and I'm anxious to read it. I've heard really mixed reviews on it but I like to form my own opinion. I'm glad to see you liked it.

  8. I am looking forward to reading Perrotta. I heard him speak at a book event. I think I will read Election first, but I do think I will like this one.

  9. Any book that stays with you days after finishing it sounds like a book I'm interested in reading. I was thinking about ordering this from B&N anyway so I'm placing that order today!

  10. I read both The Abstinence Teacher and Little Children and enjoyed both. I purposely didn't see the movie they made of Little Children because I was afraid it would ruin the book.
    I have this one on my shelves, and am glad to hear that it is just as good as his others.

  11. I picked up Little CHildren because so many bloggers seem to like this author. This looks like another one I'd like.

  12. I liked and admired the novel. Like everything Perrotta has published, the dialogue is on the mark and his take on people's behavior spot on. But this book will not be everyone's cup of tea, principally because its take on the world and on human psyches is so black.
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