Tuesday, November 8, 2011

The Leftovers Novel Leaves Something Lacking, But HBO Series in Progress

I have to go outside the norm for this review, and say that I was somewhat disappointed with Tom Perrotta's The Leftovers. Perrotta's novels have invariably entertained me; when I finally read Little Children a few years ago, I immediately went back and read the rest of his novels. I enjoyed them all. I thought his characters were cunning and clever, his plots outrageous and realistic all at once. When I found out he was coming to the Southern Festival of Books in October, I promptly wrote up an ode to Perrotta during my countdown posts.

I also need to be honest and say that the premise for The Leftovers did not appeal to me from the get-go. I haven't read Christian-based accounts of the supposed apocalypse, such as Left Behind; I don't watch or read science fiction-based versions of a post-apocalyptic world (i.e., Cormac McCarthy's The Road, in either book or movie versions). Part of this distancing myself from human tellings of a second coming is a certain revulsion with people speaking about and telling tales they can't possibly know the truth about. Similar to Harold Camping and his wild predictions of the world ending, I detest people who act as though they know the truth about any such occurrences. We humans don't know; we may have beliefs, but we decidedly do not have knowledge.

Before you jump all over my thought process on this one, let me assure you: I realize Perrotta was trying to do no such thing. I fully realize, as well, that his newest novel is a parody of sorts, making comedy out of and poking fun at such predictions. Still, the novel's premise kept me from pre-ordering the novel, despite my great appreciation of Perrotta's body of work. But then there was a contest for the audio version of The Leftovers over on the book blog nomadreader, which I entered and won.

And so, I came into possession of an audio version of Perrotta's latest novel. I was thrilled by my win, because -- despite any misgivings about its plot -- I was still excited about reading The Leftovers, simply because I admire and enjoy Perrotta's writing. I will wholeheartedly admit that perhaps an audio version was not the best way to experience this novel. There were doubtless intricacies which I missed by hearing the book rather than reading it on the page.

In the end, the characters were my favorite part of the novel. I found myself wanting to return to certain characters when Perrotta's story took me away from them for too long. That being said, I enjoyed the varying perspectives given, and the way Perrotta changed points of view frequently. Hearing about October 14 (the date of the supposed rapture in the novel) from many characters' perspectives was quite interesting. Perrotta shares thoughts from many different kinds of people, and from people whose reactions to October 14 vary considerably:

  • Grown-ups whose lives have been turned upside down, like housewife Nora, who loses her entire family to the rapture
  • Teenagers whose lives have been affected, either by loss of family members to the rapture, or to loss of family members to various cults that pop up afterwards
  • People who join said cults, including:
    • teenagers who join the Barefoot movement (think modern-day hippies)
    • followers of Holy Wayne (who leads a Healing Hug movement and impregnates one of his wives with a child who is supposed to solve everything)
    • and the creepiest of all -- the Guilty Remnant, or G.R. (a group of "watchers" for those left behind, who wear only white and smoke cigarettes "to proclaim their faith")
  • Religious folks who weren't "taken" and can't understand why

Perrotta does an excellent job of delving into the psyche of various kinds of human beings. It isn't hard to believe that if something like the rapture were to occur, people would react in much the same way: some with sadness, some with mental illness, and some with radicalism. 

But to truly give yourself over to The Leftovers, I think as a reader you must entirely suspend your disbelief. In short, you must buy into the idea of October 14. And while Perrotta's observations about the human spirit and subsequent reactions was spot-on, I simply couldn't fully immerse myself in the idea of the rapture as Perrotta told the story. In this case, I have to plead an"it's not you, it's me" argument, because I truly believe Perrotta did an excellent job with this novel. It just wasn't the novel for me. Others have praised the novel. For their thoughts, click on any of the following links:
  • Stephen King's review for the NY Times
  • Kimberly's review on the Fancy Terrible book blog
  • nomadreader's review of the novel
  • The Book Lady's Blog review
  • Ron Charles' review for the Washington Post

Tom Perrotta is the author of five other novels, including Little Children and Election, which were both made into feature films. He is currently working on an adaptation of The Leftovers for HBO. To find out more, visit his very well-done (and, of course, well-written) website.


  1. Sorry this one was somewhat disappointing for you! I wondered how it would fare on audio (I'm not much of an audio listener). I loved it, but I certainly see what you're saying here. I am quite curious to see how the tv show comes about.

  2. I'm curious about the tv show, also. I almost always love HBO series, and for some reason I can tolerate in them what I don't usually like elsewhere (i.e., westerns -- Deadwood -- or vampires -- True Blood). I have a feeling they could do it very well. I usually only like audio titles if they are fast-paced and not very in-depth. Mysteries & thrillers seem to do best for me on audio. Perhaps at some point I'll read The Leftovers in paper version & feel differently about it!



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