Book review: The Leftovers

Literary novel offers a fresh twist on apocalypic tale

Leftovers Perrotta metaphysical fiction new age novel spiritual novelRating: 4 1/2 out of 5 stars

Listed as a Notable Book in 2011 by the New York Times, Washington Post, USA Today, and NPR, The Leftovers by Tom Perrotta distinguishes itself from most apocalyptic fiction by being pointedly low key and non-judgmental. While not a spiritual/metaphysical novel per se, this psychological examination of suburbia in crisis is enthralling, surprising, and beautifully written.

Story:  What if your life was upended in an instant? What if your spouse or your child disappeared right in front of your eyes? Was it the Rapture or something even more difficult to explain? How would you rebuild your life in the wake of such a devastating event? These are the questions confronting the bewildered citizens of Mapleton, a formerly comfortable suburban community that lost over a hundred people in the Sudden Departure. Kevin Garvey, the new mayor, wants to move forward, to bring a sense of renewed hope and purpose to his traumatized neighbors, even as his own family disintegrates. His wife, Laurie, has left him to enlist in the Guilty Remnant, a homegrown cult whose members take a vow of silence but haunt the town’s streets as “living reminders” of God’s judgment. His son, Tom, is gone, too, dropping out of college to follow a crooked “prophet” who calls himself Holy Wayne. Only his teenaged daughter, Jill, remains, and she’s definitely not the sweet “A” student she used to be. (From amazon.com)

Spiritual/metaphysical content: Medium. Perrotta’s version of the Rapture is very different from what most people expect: People are taken at random, with no regard for what society labels “good” or “bad.” In fact, we don’t even know if it was a religious event or of alien origin. The not knowing what happened, why, or what will happen next is at the heart of this psychological literary novel.

In terms of a spiritual response, Perrotta offers several plausible reactions: The silent Watchers who forsake all possessions, empty themselves of expectation, and wait quietly for whatever happens next. Then there’s the Guilty Remnant, who embrace hardship and humiliation to recognize that continuing with “life as usual” is disconnected from reality. They no longer pretend that everything will be okay; they refuse to play the relationship, consumption, political, and religious games that consume most lives. Then there are the Barefoot People, hedonists who feel it’s their responsibility to enjoy life to the fullest. And inevitably, numerous prophets spring up and eventually are brought down by the same flaws that routinely unseat contemporary spiritual leaders.

Perrotta explores these alternative forms of religion and tries to find their meaning, demonstrating how each may be a reasonable reaction to such an extraordinary event.

My take: This is a psychological novel rather than a spiritual or metaphysical book, examining in depth how we as individuals might react to such an unfathomable catastrophe. Can we rebuild our lives around the friends and family who are left? Should we?

Many people in this suburban town are living lives of quiet desperation, hoping they’ll wake up one morning and find it was a bad dream or that the world has finally ended–it’s the limbo of not knowing what will happen next that slowly erodes their lives. The rest have splintered into different cult-like groups that beautifully illustrate the wide range of psychological reactions contemporary Americans might have.

Perrotta is a talented writer. The novel is low key and soothingly simple, considering how complex the situation is, and one individual’s story seamlessly blends into the next. The pointed lack of melodrama distinguishes The Leftovers from many apocalyptic stories. Sometimes you get the feeling that people aren’t feeling enough, that many are numbed to the point of barely existing, even after three years. The tone can feel bleak, even hopeless at times. However, it’s worth reading on to discover how such diverse individuals cope with tragedy on such a large scale and answer the key question for themselves: Should we bother to rebuild? The answers may surprise you.

Details:

The Leftovers, by Tom Perrotta
St. Martin’s Griffin, 2012
Paperback, 384 pages
Buy at Amazon

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