The Leftovers by Tom Perrotta

10762469Fiction — print. St. Martin’s Press, 2011. 355 pgs. Library copy.

Imagine if two percent of the world’s population disappeared on October 14th? No virus. No war. One minute your brother, neighbor, coworker is there and the next? Poof — gone. Three years later, the residents of Mapleton are still struggling to make sense of the sudden disappearance of their loved ones.

The town’s reverend has launched a slanderous campaign to prove the event was not the Rapture because the people who disappeared could not possibly be worthy of God’s love. Others have channeled their attention on moving forward, on refusing to dwell on events that cannot be explained must to the dissatisfaction of the Guilty Remnant. Dressed in all-white, traveling in pairs, and smoking incessantly, members of the cult-like Guilty Remnant monitor the people of Mapleton silently reminding people of what they are choosing to forget.

Perrotta’s novel specifically focuses on the Garvey family and how they and the people closest to them deal with the fallout. Kevin, Mapleton’s new mayer, wants to move his community forward and channel their grief into a single day of remembrance, but his wife and son are unable to move on as quickly as he. Tom fixates on the disappearance of someone he once knew in grade school, someone he hasn’t spoken to in years dropping out of college to follow a self-proclaimed prophet, Holy Wayne, who claims to absorb people’s pain and abuses young, Asian girls in the name of his special gift. Laurie, who was visiting with her best friend when said friend’s daughter disappeared, joins the Guilty Remnant willingly choosing to severe all ties with her family, including her teenage daughter, Jill, who changes her entire image in order to deal with the changes.

The only non-Garvey focused on in this book is Nora Durst, who lost her husband and her toddler children on October 14th. Still reeling from the tragedy, Nora rations out episodes of “Spongebob Squarepants”, her son’s favorite show, and tries to move forward through her relationship with Kevin. But that is more difficult than she anticipated, especially given the temptation to see her missing husband and children as more than perfect.

I tried to convince my book club that members of the Guily Remnant, who states that their purpose is to reject society, smoke cigarettes as a way to get society to reject them in turn. The idea donned on me as I was walking home from work watching people speed up to pass smokers or hold their breath while waiting for the light to change in an obvious rejection of the behavior of the person next to them, and it was an idea that stayed with me long after Perrotta finally explained the group’s decision to smoke. My book club rejected this idea in favor of Perrotta’s explanation, but this example ultimately demonstrates the most interesting and frustrating thing about this book: the answers are few and far between.

I expected there to be more answers — I’m still trying to figure out if the rapture was truly the rapture — and it took me a few days and a book club discussion to realize the purpose of the novel is to explore human nature in the wake of an unexplainable tragedy. In this case, there is no one to blame (unless you choose to blame God), no cause to explain why people left so how does society move forward?

The gravitation to Holy Wayne and the reaction of the reverend are the two responses I felt were most accurate and, personally, I wish Perrotta has spent more time on them rather than on Laurie. It is hard to support both Nora and Laurie because Laurie chooses to abandon her family despite the fact that she didn’t lose anyone within her immediate family. At least, not the same sense that Nora lost her family, and the juxtaposition between the two characters is incredibly frustrating.

What is even more frustrating is the way this novel peters out. I expected some kind of climax and while in the context of the story Perrotta is trying to tell the ending makes sense,  I felt like it ended on an underwhelming and weak note. The beginning, however, is very engaging, and I can appreciate a good character study now and then.

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