I have a sentimental attachment to Tom Perrotta because his last book, The Abstinence Teacher, was the very first book I reviewed here on Shelf Love. I liked the book for its sympathetic and gently mocking approach to the culture wars, an approach that feels refreshing in a society where polarization and rancor seem to be the norm when discussing social issues. Still, I wasn’t sure that I wanted to read Perrotta’s new book, The Leftovers, a novel that imagines a world after a rapture-like event in which millions of people are suddenly, inexplicably whisked off the earth. With people like Harold Camping and his rapture predictions making headlines—and then getting mocked ceaselessly—I wasn’t sure I could stomach a novel that poked fun at a belief many of my fellow Christians hold.
Despite my reservations, an offer of a review copy was too good to turn down, given my previous good experience with Perrotta. (I’ve not read Election or Little Children, although I’ve seen and enjoyed both films.) I’m happy to tell you that this book was well worth reading. As in The Abstinence Teacher, Perrotta (mostly) avoids the easy targets and chooses to create human beings, not caricatures. If anything, I’d say this book is a better than The Abstinence Teacher because the issues are bigger. It’s not about sex and politics and parenting; it’s about life and mortality. The really big stuff.
When the book begins, the rapture-like event has already happened. Millions of people—Christian, non-Christian, young, old, alone or not—suddenly vanished, never to be seen again. Almost everyone knows someone who disappeared. Some, like Nora Durst of the town of Mapleton, lost their entire families. Others, like Laurie Garvey, also of Mapleton, didn’t lose family on that fateful October 14, but they have since lost family and friends to the various movements that cropped up in the wake of the event. This was an event that changed everything.
Most of the book takes place three years later, and we see the long-term effects of the “rapture.” People are still trying to make meaning of what happened, trying to figure out how to live in a world where such a thing could happen. Even Christians who believed in the rapture find their world views upended. Many of them have, after all, been left behind, while others, including nonbelievers, have been taken.
The novel focuses on the Garvey family: Laurie and Kevin and the children Jill and Tom. Kevin is the mayor of Mapleton, and his interest is in keeping order and moving on, which also means keeping peace with the Guilty Remnant, a group whose members have taken a vow of silence and now walk around wearing white to remind people that they need to prepare for the next time. Teenage daughter Jill is among the Eyewitnesses, those who were with someone who vanished. Her “best friend” Jen was there and then was gone, but now Jill seems as traumatized by the reactions to the event than she was by the event itself. Tom has left college to follow the Rev. Gilchrest, a man who claims to have the power to take others’ pain with his embrace.
What fascinated me about this book was how plausible all of the characters’ reactions were. Even the most unbelievable acts in any other circumstance made sense in this instance. We talk a lot about events that change everything. The Holocaust. The bombing of Hiroshima. 9/11. Katrina. The thing is, all of these events are localized and have a cause we can identify, even when that cause is something as mysterious as human evil or the vagaries of nature. What these characters experienced defied all the laws of nature, all beliefs about God, everything we know about the way things work. What would it take to move on? Is it even possible?
Because the focus is on the experiences of the Garveys and a few others close to them, we only get the smallest glimpses of the international repercussions of the disappearances. Some rules have changed, but in the U.S., things seem to be going along much as they did, just with more people joining apocalyptic groups. I wondered how well any government would be able to maintain control in such a situation, but for the most part, I found this return to normalcy a refreshing contrast to the nightmare scenarios of most post-apocalyptic literature. Plus, the familiarity of the world, basically 21st-century American suburbia, meant that the psychology of the characters becomes more important than the nature of this strange new world.
In truth, it’s the workings of the characters’ minds and hearts that are important to this novel, not the changes to the world that the rapture has wrought. The event is just the inciting event. Why and how it happened and whether such a thing could happen is irrelevant. What’s important is what these people will do now. What we might do in their place. This is a novel about people in an extreme situation, not a novel about an extreme situation. That’s why it works so well.
On reading The Leftovers, I’ve become convinced that Tom Perrotta is one of our best writers at depicting suburban angst, and I’m especially impressed at how he manages to do so without seeming to despise his characters. (This undercurrent of loathing is what I hated about The Corrections, for example.) The language doesn’t particularly call attention to itself, which could be a good or bad thing, depending on the reader. I happen to love elegant, beautiful prose, but I don’t require it. A novel with compelling characters, a strong plot, and interesting ideas will do me fine, and that’s what The Leftovers delivers.