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The Leftovers by Tom Perrotta

August 10, 2013


The Rapture has just happened. At least, some people believe it was probably the Rapture, only nobody is really certain. All they know is that a large (maybe 10% or so), seemingly random portion of the population vanished in an instant. That event, which has been named the Sudden Departure, takes place just before the beginning of The Leftovers. And it leaves people grieving, wondering, searching for answers and acting out in all sorts of ways, from the strange to the utterly mundane.

At the center of The Leftovers is the Garvey family of Mapleton, which is more or less Anytown, U.S.A. Kevin Garvey, father and Mapleton mayor, searches for a genuine connection after his wife has left him to join a cult, his son has run away and his daughter has become distant and apathetic even for a teenager. We witness the years following the Sudden Departure through the eyes of the Garveys as they struggle to cope with a loss that is sudden, devastating and inexplicable—an event that could stand as a metaphor for anything from 9/11 to death itself.

The Leftovers is an ambitious book, and I love the concept at its core. I love the themes it explores, and I love the range it portrays as some people go off the deep end while others try to carry on with their everyday lives. It raises big questions about the grand Why and the boundaries between faith and madness, and tackles little questions like how does one field a softball team with only eight players?

That said, what Perrotta does best in his writing (Election, The Abstinence Teacher) is capturing the absurd in the everyday. Normal pressures pushing normal people to behave abnormally. In The Leftovers, that conflict is flipped on its head. Perrotta’s characters struggle to maintain normalcy in the face of great, shocking tragedy. What’s more, he inverts the narrative structure—the climax of the book happens off-stage, before the story starts. What we get is an epilogue, an attempt to bring resolution to what cannot be resolved.

This second criticism is a little unfair—The Rapture would be a ridiculous climax to a book, so where it happens is really the only place it could happen in the story. But what it leaves is a lot of aimless wandering (of plots and characters). It results in a book that makes observations and raises questions more than it provides resolution. Not that the book needs to provide answers to the big questions, but I wanted more resolution even within the plot and a sense of resolution or recognition or realization within the characters. The Leftovers is an enjoyable read, but it’s also a bit like looking up just after a firework has exploded and catching only the aftermath as it becomes less concrete, more abstract and slowly fades away.

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