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Saturday, December 31, 2011

What I'm Reading: The Leftovers

In my review of In the Garden of Beasts I mentioned how I love Larson and expect good things from him, so as a result, this book did not surprise me.

To show the other side of the same coin, I present The Leftovers.  I also love Tom Perrotta (use this link to see), so here I was also expecting to enjoy his newest novel The Leftovers.  Like the Larson book, this novel is also on most of the year end Best lists.  So, I expected to enjoy this book greatly.  What I did not expect was to be blown away by this novel.  It also didn't hurt that he returned to setting his books in New Jersey again.  (Click here for more on that)

Perrotta is THE expert at the 21st Century suburban novel.  I have been a suburban girl my entire life (save 2 years in Chicago proper) and am drawn to novels which contemplate the late 20th Century into the 21st Century rise of the burbs.  Each Perrotta novel has a different storyline angle but all of them boil down to him analyzing life in suburbia.

Here his lens has a slightly different focus than previosuly.  We are in a world 3 years after some sort of rapture like event where a significant percentage of the population disappeared into thin air.  We see this changed world where people are still actively healing through a few different points of view.  We have Kevin the town mayor, his wife, who has left the family for a rapture obsessed cult who all wear white and took a vow of silence, his daughter Julie who is experimenting with being a bad girl, their son, who has left college to join another cult, and Nora, a woman in town who lost her husband and both kids to the rapture like event.

The book has nothing to do with the calamitous event and everything to do with how the main characters deal with the after effects of it.  Each character has a different reaction to the event and each reaction is understandable given the magnitude of what happened.

What makes The Leftovers different from the other literary post-apocalyptic novels that have become so popular this past year is that the world for those left behind is not apacalyptic in any way.  Only people are missing.  In fact, three years after the fact, everything has pretty much gone back to complete normalcy.

You read The Leftovers if you want to take a long hard look at your own comfortable suburban existence and think about what truly makes you happy.  That is what all 5 of the main characters are forced to do by circumstance.  And they each find a different path to follow.  It is as if they are all in a form of mourning (some mourning the loss of a person or people, others the world as they knew it, and others going through adolescent growing pains in a changed world), and the time we are with them in the story they all hit bottom and begin the long climb back up.  Just like real life, some have made better choices than others; and therefore, some will be happier than others. But, all have to find their own way.

As usual, Perrotta's prose is smooth and realistic, but insightful in a way that makes you want to stop an ponder his characters' motivations.  His descriptions of suburban American life are also spot on, but not in a completely negative way.  Perrotta has a love for the suburbs that writers in previous generations did not.  He appreciates what that life has to offer, but he is also reminding his readers that just because you think you are happy and successful, you may not truly be.  You have to be happy with yourself and your life choices, not just with the stuff you have or the appearances you keep up.

The pacing here is surprisingly brisk for literary fiction.  The first third is more methodical as we meet the characters and enter their points of view, but after that it steadily gains speed like a truck going downhill.  Also I should point out that the ending is very open, but each character does make a big decision about where the next stage of their life should take them. There is no way you can agree with all of them, but they all make sense for each character.

The Leftovers is a thought provoking literary novel disguised as a genre departure. You could read it on the surface as a story of life after this event, or you can read it as a warning to yourself to find what truly makes you happy before it is too late.

Three Words That Describe This Book: multiple points of view, thought provoking, calamitous event

Readalikes:  This may strike you as odd, but when reading The Leftovers I could not stop thinking about how similar it was to The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold.  Both novels begin with a horrible event in which loved ones are lost, but then neither book continues to be about that event.  Both continue to be about those who are left on earth and how they each deal with their grief.

I read The Radleys by Matt Haig this past year also and it is very similar to The Leftovers.  Click here for more.

Jonathan Tropper is also a good readalike for Perrotta. This is Where I Leave You deals with one man's struggle to come to terms with a few different personal catastrophes.  Like Perrotta, Tropper has a sharp eye for detail and criticism but also a good sense of humor.

If you wanted more of the science fiction aspect than The Leftovers gave you, but you still want the literary elements, try Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake or The Year of the Flood.  The novels are loosely connected.

And that is it for the books I finished in 2011.  Next up, my Best of the Year List...

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