Suburban malaise, strip-mall secrets, the uneasy coexistence of public values and private desires—Tom Perrotta's best work lends insight and humor to these subjects and more. This is why, compared to top-shelf novels like Little Children and The Abstinence Teacher, Perrotta's newest comes as something of disappointment. There's a lot to like about The Leftovers, as there's always a lot to like about Perrotta's work, but its deficiencies stand out starkly.
With The Leftovers, Perrotta has caught the dystopia bug: He imagines a world reshaped by a mysterious tragedy that raises the stakes in the ongoing argument between science and faith. One day, millions of people simply vanish from the earth, in a Rapture-like event that makes no distinctions of religion, race, or anything else. (Perrotta never explains his "Sudden Departure"—like life or death, the event doesn't explain itself.)
Perrotta describes the Sudden Departure's effect on American life through the lens of one family: Kevin and his daughter Jill determinedly plow on with their lives, post-tragedy, while Kevin's wife Laurie and their son Tom are both sucked into fringe-y cults. In this way, The Leftovers fractures neatly into two halves, and given Perrotta's longstanding focus on suburban life, it's no surprise which is more effective.
The novel's most poorly realized and unearned thread follows Laurie, who leaves her family, takes a vow of silence, and joins a creepy, dangerous cult. Perrotta fails to convincingly demonstrate why a woman would so completely abandon a family that still needs her. Far more plausible are the more muted responses of Kevin and Jill, who struggle to reconstruct normalcy in a world whose rules have changed.
In addition to the misfiring cult plotlines, I spent the entirety of The Leftovers distracted by Perrotta's repeated depiction of men going after much younger women—it's dismaying that the author who wrote so persuasively of a housewife's dissatisfaction in Little Children is now observing, from the perspective of one fiftysomething character, that a woman has a "surprisingly youthful body for a 35-year-old woman who'd given birth to two kids." These elements are enough to shelve The Leftovers as a "lesser Perrotta," less satisfying and effective than his previous few books.