THE LEFTOVERS by Tom Perrotta

Book Quote:

“What mostly struck her, reading the files, was how deceptively normal things seemed in Mapleton. Most people just put on blinders and went about their trivial business, as if the Rapture had never even happened, as if they expected the world to last forever.”

Book Review:

Review by Poornima Apte (AUG 30, 2011)

On May 21 this year, many Christians waited for an event, the Rapture, which was to physically transport them to their savior, Jesus Christ. Spurred on by a minister in California, Harold Camping, many were disappointed when the event they were confident was to happen, just never came to pass.

In his new book, author Tom Perrotta explores the what-ifs of what eventually turned out to be a non-event. What if an event like the Rapture did happen? What happens to the people who get left behind, the Leftovers? If Perrotta’s vision were to come true, most of the people who get left behind resort to their own special brand of religious fanaticism.

Perrotta’s latest novel, The Leftovers, is set in the fictional bedroom community of Mapleton with the mayor Kevin Garvey, pretty much taking center stage. The book picks up a couple of years after millions of people suddenly disappear one fall morning and the leftovers are still struggling to cope with this devastating loss. This seismic event is somewhat dissimilar from the Rapture in that the people who disappear include many non-Christians and non-believers.

There are many in Mapleton who lose close family members to the event but mayor Kevin Garvey is not one of them. Yet he is as much affected as the worst of them because his immediate family members come horribly undone in the event’s aftermath. Kevin’s son, Tom, drops out of college at Syracuse to join a cult headed by a charismatic leader, Holy Wayne. Holy Wayne, aka Mr. Gilchrest, starts out by proclaiming that he can literally absorb people’s pain by just hugging them. Soon, as his popularity increases, so do his perverse ambitions—Holy Wayne convinces his followers the true savior in the end will be the male child that he is to father with one of many teen “brides.”

As if this cult were not weird enough, there’s the one that takes up residence right in Mapleton, inhabiting empty homes and generally creeping the local residents. Kevin’s wife, Laurie, is in fact a loyal member of this organization called The Guilty Remnants. The GR as the book often refers to them, all take an oath of silence and they mostly pass the time by reviewing residents’ “files” and figuring out which people to stalk every day. “WE WON’T LET THEM FORGET. WE SMOKE TO PROCLAIM OUR FAITH,” are just a couple of core creeds they live by. “It was a lifestyle, not a religion, an ongoing improvisation rooted in the conviction that the post-Rapture world demanded a new way of living, free from the old, discredited forms—no more marriage, no more families, no more consumerism, no more politics, no more conventional religion, no more mindless entertainment. Those days were done. All that remained for humanity was to hunker down and await the inevitable,” writes Perrotta of the GR.

While Tom and Laurie in the Garvey family come undone in their own way by resorting to some kind of faith-based mechanism, Kevin’s teen daughter, Jill, once a stellar A+ student, has now completely fallen apart in the wake of her mother’s leaving. Jill’s heartbreak is especially gut wrenching to watch unfold  since it could have been avoided so easily. “What wasn’t natural was your mother walking out on you, moving across town to live in a group house with a bunch of religious nuts, cutting off all communication with her family,” Jill remembers over and over again.

Despite these setbacks, Kevin gamely soldiers on—trying hard to be a good father to Jill all the while hoping Laurie will return. When it becomes increasingly clear she won’t, he reaches out to Nora Durst, the one woman in the town who has been hit the hardest by the tragedy. Nora lost her husband and two kids in the event and, understandably, has never recovered. “They were always tiptoeing around her, so careful and considerate, so painfully sympathetic, as if she were dying of cancer or afflicted with some disfiguring disease…” Nora thinks of the Mapleton residents who try sharing in her pain every day. Despite a somewhat promising start, Nora realizes she is far too gone to be ready for a new romance—not with Kevin or anyone else.

As he showed in the wonderful Little Children, Perrotta is especially astute at capturing everyday lives in suburbia. Even in The Leftovers, he is best when he describes the goings on at Mapleton and especially at detailing the devastation brought about on the teenaged Jill. But in The Leftovers, the move to the new cults comes across as mumbo-jumbo and less than convincing.

The problem with The Leftovers is that so much of it revolves around buying into the story of the Guilty Remnants. And buying into that story essentially means understanding why Laurie Garvey simply upped and left, why she would leave her loving family behind. Even when she briefly returns one Christmas Day and is handed a present that Jill bought for her (a lighter), Laurie simply tosses it out. She can’t be attached any more, she can’t care any more, she believes. She must simply hunker down and wait for the end. Laurie’s conversion to the GR, oblivious of all else around her, is so unconvincing that it majorly cripples the novel.

Perrotta has said that The Leftovers turns out to be a “surprisingly rich metaphor for growing older and living with loss.” It would indeed be great if the novel were that. It should be pointed out though, that the process of growing old is natural and inevitable. And Laurie’s abrupt leaving—why even the whole Rapture-like tragedy is not. These events are not natural nor are they inevitable. So what remains at the end of it all is a somewhat skewed “metaphor for loss” but a mildly entertaining one nevertheless.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-3-0from 254 readers
PUBLISHER: St. Martin’s Press; First Edition edition (August 30, 2011)
REVIEWER: Poornima Apte
EXTRAS: Excerpt
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August 30, 2011 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags:  · Posted in: Alternate History, Contemporary

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