Tuesday, November 8, 2011

The Leftovers

My reading drought is over: I finally found and finished a new book!

I've always liked Tom Perrotta's books. He has a unique take on families and relationships, and his plots are original. This one was a lot further out there than most: I'd describe it as sci-fi meets family drama meets drinking the Kool-Aid.

When the book opens, the world has just been devastated by an unexplained phenomenon. Millions of people, husbands and wives, brothers and sisters, bartenders and frat house brothers and secret girlfriends, have simply vanished, popped out of being. Many believe that the disappearance of all of these souls is the Rapture, and the rest of the world has simply been left behind. The religious and pious among them are angry at being passed over. Many others don't care to assign a reason to the disappearance. They are only able to grieve for the loss of their loved ones. The world is in chaos.

In the midst of the confusion arise several cult groups to address the needs of the leftovers. Some promise that hugging will transfer the pain of loss from one to another. Others encourage people to travel barefoot through life, experiencing as much pleasure as they can before another mass vanishment occurs. Members of a group called the Guilty Remnant dress all in white, take vows of silence, smoke cigarettes and walk in pairs through the streets. They watch and follow their fellow citizens, their eyes a judgement of mistakes and misdeeds, their appearance a reminder that everyone will vanish someday.

This is the world that the Garvey family inhabits. Before the Sudden Departure, the Garveys were a normal suburban family, comfortable and happy. Laurie was a stay-at home mom; Kevin owned a successful business, which he was preparing to sell and head for early retirement; Jill was a straight-A junior in high school; and Tom had just started his first semester at Syracuse. When the dust of the departure settles, Laurie has abandoned her family to join the Guilty Remnant, where she forms a strange relationship with a young woman named Meg; Jill has befriended Aimee, a party-loving girl who crashes at the Garvey house and leads Jill astray; Tom has begun serving Holy Wayne, the founder of the Healing Hug movement; and Kevin is left with a big house, a daughter he no longer understands, and a spare teenager. Kevin decides to run for mayor of the grieving town, and helps get it back on its feet. On the way, he starts a relationship with Nora Durst, who lost her entire family in the Sudden Departure, but Nora finds it nearly impossible to move on with her life.

I won't give away the rest of the book, but I will tell you that it's not really about people vanishing, or being a leftover, or any religious interpretation of the Rapture. It's about a family and how they each deal with an unthinkable disaster in ways that tear some apart and force some together, and about a world gone mad with grief and confusion. The Sudden Disappearance is never explained. The book is only about the aftermath of something neither the characters nor the reader (nor the author, probably) understand.

Now reviewing my synopsis above, I realize how crazy it all sounds. I wonder how Tom Perrotta pitched the book to his editor. "Yeah, it's about a family in a post-Rapture-esque world, and the mother and son join different cults, and I'm never going to explain what the Sudden Disappearance is or why it happened. Hope that's cool."

I'm glad the editor bought it. You should too!

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