Review: Little Children, by Tom Perrotta

I didn’t know quite what to expect when I plucked this book off the shelf at my university’s library. (I graduated just a few days ago, so I need to take advantage of my borrowing privileges while I still can!) I had heard of this book a bit, and liked the cover, but that was about it. This is a strategy that has often let me down (I’m looking at you, Wizard of the Grove) but in this case, I am extremely glad it led me to Tom Perrotta’s Little Children.

The overall gist of the novel is that everyone is unhappy with their lives and is grasping for something that they believe will make them happy again. Sarah, for example, is an intellectually-curious feminist who found herself floundering post-graduate school, getting married to an older man, and becoming an unfulfilled mother and housewife. Todd is a stay-at-home dad ambling along the road to becoming a lawyer, propelled more by his filmmaker wife and her desires than any real ambitions of his own. We also have Richard, Sarah’s porn-addicted, absentee husband; Kathy, the aforementioned filmmaker wife; Larry, an angry and ineffectual retired cop; Ronnie, a recently-released sex offender; and Mary Ann, a smug, controlling housewife who becomes Sarah’s frenemy. (Writing it out like that makes me realize how unlikeable everyone in this book was, and makes me think of Mad Men–in that you’re not really supposed to like any of the characters, and a few of them can honestly be read as sociopathic.)

All of these characters have the sense that they were meant for something more, that this wasn’t the ways things were supposed to be, that their best days have passed but can somehow be relived. This focus on the bleak helplessness of middle-class, suburban life reminded me favorably of two of my favorite reads, Revolutionary Road and Freedom. I could read about suburban malaise forever. (Is that weird? I grew up in the suburbs myself, so…) Sarah’s story, for example, rang so true to me and my own hopes and fears about the future that I got freaked out. And Richard–the porn addiction aside–comes up with some pretty interesting insights:

Besides, if there was one thing life had taught him, it was that it was ridiculous to be at war with your own desires. You always lost in the end, so the interlude of struggle never amounted to anything but so much wasted time.

Oh man. However true that quote may be, isn’t it depressing? I mean, it sounds like the rationalizations of an alcoholic. But it was perfectly in line with what we know about Richard; similarly, the other characters find themselves giving into their own impulses to varying degrees.

So you can already tell I was sucked in by the characterization. The plotting and pacing were also excellent, and the writing was tight and clear without being boring. While this may be a quiet story about quiet people, it still managed to be  surprising, fascinating, and gripping. Perrotta has this wry tone that I loved, suffusing a lot of even the darker parts of the novel with gallows humor. Even when he’s “telling” and not “showing,” it’s done effectively and lyrically. I feel like I could randomly pick out quotes from this book and they would be more impressive than the writing from some of the more well-regarded books on my shelves! If it isn’t obvious already, I really liked Little Children.

One thing is that the ending was almost bizarrely-structured–purposefully, I’m sure. You’re expecting this huge blowout, a climax (heh) with potentially horrible implications, and instead you get (highlight if you don’t mind spoilers) four characters standing around a playground, smoking. While I did appreciate that Perrotta could so adeptly create a tense atmosphere, and could so nicely mirror the outcome of Todd and Sarah’s story with his own novel’s structure, as a reader and not a critic, it did feel like a bit of a let-down. But because the rest of the book was so, so good, I didn’t really mind.

My one real quibble was that Mary Ann floats in and out of the main storyline. She’s not a main character, but gets treated like one in the end when we are suddenly introduced to her point of view, her marital troubles etc. It was nice to be able to view her in a slightly more sympathetic light, but I’m not entirely sure of the purpose behind including her in the end. Was it to have all of the antagonistic pairs (Mary Ann/Sarah and Ronnie/Larry) present in one place as their respective dreams crash down around  them? Or am I simply missing where Mary Ann was established as an integral part of the plot?

Anyway. If you enjoy reading about people’s ennui and disappointment with the American Dream, grew up disaffected in the suburbs yourself, or just appreciate good literature, pick up Little Children. Honestly, just read it! I don’t think I’ve done the novel justice with this review. But I do know that I will definitely be reading more of Perrotta’s work.

Bookwanderer Rating: Four out of five stars
Bookwanderer Tagline: “After all, what was adult life but one moment of weakness piled on top of another?”

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6 Responses to “Review: Little Children, by Tom Perrotta”


  1. 1 nomadreader May 31, 2012 at 8:13 am

    Tom Perrotta is one of my favorite authors, and I think this book is among his best. I’m glad serendipity worked this time!

    • 2 tarynwanderer May 31, 2012 at 11:45 am

      I can’t believe I’m only just discovering Perrota now!

      Are there any other books of his that you particularly enjoyed? I was thinking about reading Election next, just because it’s the only other one I’ve heard of, but am open to suggestions!

      • 3 nomadreader June 4, 2012 at 3:57 pm

        Election is my least favorite of his novels, but it’s still good. It’s a little different. My favorite is probably Joe College because it’s about college and I read it when I was in college. I’m also a huge fan of The Leftovers, his latest novel. Honestly, I love them all for different reasons. Enjoy!

  2. 4 Book Nympho May 31, 2012 at 9:05 am

    You wrote a great review and I can see why you liked this book. But I personally don’t enjoy reading about bored, depressed people so I usually avoid books like this. But you’ve made me question whether or not I should reconsider. I have seen the film adapted from this book which stars Kate Winslet. Although based on your spoiler of the ending, it sounds like the book is a bit different. But, after watching the movie, I didn’t really feel inclined to read the book. Same with Revolutionary Road which I didn’t actually see but my mom did and told me what happened in it and it sounds just so sad.

    Glad you found a new author and hope you get a chance to watch the movie and maybe even write a comparison on your blog! 🙂

    • 5 tarynwanderer May 31, 2012 at 11:48 am

      I totally understand your aversion to bored, depressed characters–it actually makes more sense to me to want to avoid this type of book! I think I’m attracted to them as a warning…that feeling of “this could have been me”! But it is sometimes too much even for me. I hated Something Happened, for example.

      Did you enjoy the movie version? I’m intrigued by your statement that the ending of the movie is different…a viewing may be in order!

      • 6 Book Nympho May 31, 2012 at 1:36 pm

        I can definitely see the appeal of those books as you described. Sometimes I read books that are a little on the sad side because they are a good reminder and give me a little jolt to start making things happen. But some are much sadder than others, so I prefer some that aren’t so melancholy. And yes, I did enjoy the movie. It’s been a while since I saw it so I could be wrong on the ending, it’s just that as I recall it, the characters didn’t all get together but had their stories resolved in their own way. I highly recommend it though so I hope you get a chance to see it!


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