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?”