Friday, September 5, 2014

"The Leftovers" by Tom Perrotta

I first heard about The Leftovers from an NPR interview with Perrotta about the new TV series coming out based on the novel. The deceptively simple premise seemed fascinating: one day (October 14th) about three percent of the world's population simply disappears. Some call it the Rapture, though there are no clear connections between who disappears and who remains behind. The Leftovers picks up three years later in the suburban town of Mapleton, exploring what happened to those who have had to continue on.

Perrotta's novel spends no time on the sci-fi/fantasy mechanics of the disappearance, which is never explained. Instead, he's focused on how normal individuals react when the extraordinary happens--and then they must go back to "normal" life. Most of us rely on predictability and routine to make sense of our existence, but the "Rapture" throws all of that into question. No where is this more evident than in the characters of Laurie and Nora. Though no one in Laurie's immediate family disappears, she's haunted by the disappearance of her best friend's daughter. She eventually abandons her family to join the Guilty Remnant, a cult devoted to keeping the event foremost in everyone's minds. Members live a monastic existence--renouncing material goods and maintaining silence--while following around (and silently judging) those trying to live normally. Though at first it's hard to understand how Laurie could leave all those she cares about, the appeal of giving up attempts at normalcy and turning one's life over to a bigger force eventually becomes clear.

Nora's loss is much worse. Her husband and two children all disappear on October 14th, and though she attempts to continue a real life, she doesn't deal much better than Laurie and feels even more guilty.

Their stories struck me the most, particularly when Laurie does form a relationship again with Guilty Remnant recruit Meg. The culmination of their story, though perhaps foreseeable, was quite the gut punch.

But, if it's the loss of relationships that destroy us, it's also relationships that have the potential to redeem us. Perrotta's not about sugar coating real life, and not everyone is able to grab a hold of what's offered, but the novel does offer some hope.

The characters are varied and richly developed, even though most of the novel centers on Laurie and her family: husband Kevin (the town's mayor), daughter Jill (delving into slackerdom), and son Tom (who also left to join a cult). Though there's relatively little action, I was fully engrossed the whole time. I'm sure the show will be excellent.

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