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Review: ‘The Leftovers’ by Tom Perrotta

Review: ‘The Leftovers’ by Tom Perrotta post image

Title: The Leftovers
Author: Tom Perrotta
Genre: Fiction
Year: 2011
Acquired: From the publisher for review consideration
Rating: ★★★★½

Review: The Leftovers is the best September 11 novel I’ve read that never actually mentions September 11, which it turns out is exactly the kind of book I wanted to read about September 11.

I’ll have to back up and explain a little bit. Back in September I read a few pieces that suggested Amy Waldman’s The Submission might be The September 11 Novel that we had all been waiting for. I got The Submission from the library but wasn’t able to read past about 25 pages because the book just felt almost too real and so much about September 11 that it didn’t feel right.

The Submission is about a committee of people tasked with choosing the memorial that will stand at Ground Zero. The book opens with the group arguing between two anonymously-submitted pieces — one supported by a local artist and one supported by the committee’s token victim family member representative. The committee chooses one, only to discover that the designer is a Muslim, which does not go over well with some committee members.

The book goes on, but that’s as far as I read because I just couldn’t deal with it. To her credit, Waldman perfectly captures many of the conversations and tensions that have emerged since September 11 in just the few pages I read, but the book just didn’t capture the sense of angst and anxiety that September 11 holds for me. Waldman definitely may have gotten there eventually — I only read the first few pages — but The Leftovers got there immediately.

The Leftovers takes place three years after an event called the Sudden Departure, a Rapture-like event where, in an instant, people all over the world vanished. There’s no explanation for the disappearances, no one to blame. It just is. But The Leftovers isn’t about the departure. It’s about about how we survive the inexplicable.

The story focuses on this idea of surviving loss by narrowing in on a single family, a family that didn’t actually lose anyone. The mother, Laurie, has abandoned her family to joining the Guilty Remnant, a cult whose members have taken a vow of silence and participate in some bizarre rituals. The father, Kevin, has made an entrance in politics and, as city mayor, is working to bring things back to normal as soon as possible. The daughter, Jill, has turned from a responsible straight “A” student into a teenage delinquent, and the son, Tom, has fled his hometown to follow a questionable prophet.

Perrotta never makes even a passing reference to September 11 in The Leftovers, and yet that event is all I could think about as I read. I think what Perrotta does is capture the feeling of what September 11 was — an inexplicable event that, in a single instant, changed the world as we knew it — and explores it without ever given that event a name. Rather than focusing so as explicitly on the facts of the event like the first pages of The Submission does, Perrotta writes about loss and our individual response to events that we cannot explain. It’s exactly the sort of book I’ve wanted to read about September 11, even if Perotta never says that.

Other Reviews: Shelf Love | The Book Lady’s Blog | nomadreader |

If you have reviewed this book, please leave a link to the review in the comments and I will add your review to the main post. All I ask is for you to do the same to mine — thanks!

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Diane@BibliophileBytheSea November 15, 2011, 6:07 am

    I liked this as well, but then this author has not disappointed me in the past.

    • Kim November 15, 2011, 7:55 pm

      I’ve only read one other Perrotta book before this one and I wasn’t thrilled, but The Leftovers really redeemed him for me.

  • Andi November 15, 2011, 8:10 am

    I’ve never read Perrotta even though I have a couple of his novels on my shelves. This is another one I’d like to add to my collection as it sounds great, and the premise (as usual) is stellar.

    Great review, Kim!

    • Kim November 15, 2011, 8:00 pm

      Yes, I loved the premise of this one. And I love the way he doesn’t dwell on trying to answer the “Why?” of the Sudden Departure, just on the aftermath. I think that was really effective.

  • Steph November 15, 2011, 8:40 am

    I’ve read a lot of reviews about this book and while many people have said that it’s not Perotta’s best, I’m still interesting in trying it one day. The premise (with or without the ties to 9/11) is really interesting to me, so while I have vowed to try Little Children by this author first, if I like that, I will probably try this one too.

    Also, I found it really interesting to read about your reaction to The Submission. When I heard about that book, I was fascinated and knew I had to read it. I don’t really feel a strong need to revisit 9/11 through literature, but something about the response that book is evoking in readers and the way it seems to capture current tensions really intrigues me.

    • Kim November 15, 2011, 8:03 pm

      I don’t know much about Perrotta other than this book and Election, and I liked this one better.

      I think maybe at another time The Submission might work for me, but at the time I read it I just felt like it was too real, too much like the things I was reading in the news and it just wasn’t clicking.

  • Stephanie November 15, 2011, 10:20 am

    This seems very different from anything Perrotta has written before. I definitely want to read it!

    • Kim November 15, 2011, 8:05 pm

      I’m really curious to read more Perrotta after this. Any recommendations?

  • Natalie ~ the Coffee and a Book Chick November 15, 2011, 11:07 am

    I am so ecstatic that you enjoyed this book! I received it a few weeks ago and have been meaning to get to it, so I’m thrilled to move it up on the list even sooner!

    • Kim November 15, 2011, 8:06 pm

      I loved it a ton. The end loses it just a bit, but on the whole I thought it was really great. I hope you like it too!

  • bermudaonion (Kathy) November 15, 2011, 3:25 pm

    I’m very curious about this book and how he made it feel like a 9/11 book without even mentioning 9/11.

    • Kim November 15, 2011, 8:07 pm

      I may have just made the association because the idea of the Sudden Departure reminded me of what 9/11 feels like. It’s about sudden loss, which resonates with that day for me.

  • Meg November 15, 2011, 3:55 pm

    I’ve been very curious about this one but never realized it had any connection — implied or explicitly stated — to Sept. 11. That definitely adds another dimension to it, and it sounds like a thoughtful book I would enjoy.

    • Kim November 15, 2011, 8:09 pm

      I didn’t quite expect to feel the association as much as I did until I started reading. It’s definitely not the reason I picked up the book, but I liked that it was there.

  • Care November 16, 2011, 7:36 am

    Oh, Perrotta – one more MUST READ but haven’t yet author because I can’t decide which to choose first!

    • Kim November 19, 2011, 9:14 am

      Ha, isn’t it crazy how that happens? I really want to read The Abstinence Teacher now.

  • nomadreader November 16, 2011, 10:44 am

    I never thought of September 11 when I read this one, but I can absolutely see it now. (For the record, I read The Submission and was underwhelmed.) Now I’m tempted to re-read The Leftovers again. It was just so good.

    • Kim November 19, 2011, 9:15 am

      It was good. I can see re-reading this one in the future. It may have been the time I was reading that made the September 11 connection for me. I think I finished this one in early October.

  • Jeanne November 16, 2011, 5:26 pm

    I loved The Abstinence Teacher, and the review at Shelf Love made me sure I wanted to read this book, but I think your review has tipped me over the edge and I’m going to have to go find a copy NOW.

    • Kim November 19, 2011, 9:15 am

      Yay! I love hearing that 🙂 I really hope you like it.

  • Gwen November 16, 2011, 10:17 pm

    Slap me upside the head and call me Sally, I never thought of the 9/11 connection. On the other hand, while both the Sudden Departure and 9/11 left the world utterly changed, we did know what happened and I think there was more anger. The Sudden Departure left them sort of stunned, not that we weren’t on 9/12 and after, but we had an enemy that we could be angry at.

    Anywho, I liked this one and have never read anything of his before. The ending surprised me a bit and that is getting harder and harder to do.

    • Kim November 19, 2011, 9:16 am

      Yeah, that is a big difference between the two events — a clear person to blame versus an amorphous, inexplicable force. On the other hand, part of what’s happened since September 11 is a “War on Terror” which is, to me, an inexplicable, stunning, scary thing. It’s not clear to me exactly who or what “terror” is, which maybe where I’m drawing the connection.

      I’d never read anything like this either, which I loved. I’m not sold on the ending, but maybe a re-read would change my mind 🙂

  • christa @ mental foodie November 17, 2011, 12:52 am

    I didn’t think of the 9/11 connection. I am glad you liked this much better than I did- I couldn’t finish it ha. Haven’t reviewed yet…

    • Kim November 19, 2011, 9:17 am

      Bummer, that’s too bad! I’ll be curious to read what didn’t work for you.

  • Kailana November 17, 2011, 12:51 pm

    I have been curious about this book since it came out. I have never read anything by the author before, though. I really should!

    • Kim November 19, 2011, 9:17 am

      This was my second Perrotta book, and I liked it better than my first, Election, but they’re so different its hard to compare.

  • Brenna November 17, 2011, 2:28 pm

    Kim, It’s too bad The Submission didn’t work for you. I read it back in September and found it to be a thoughtful and poignant examination of the cultural relations that ensued post 9/11. However, if you were looking for a book that was a little more removed from the actual events of 9/11, The Submission isn’t it. I’m glad you found what you were looking for in The Leftovers.

    • Kim November 19, 2011, 9:19 am

      I may have given up on it too soon. I got stuck in the beginning when they first found out the submission was from a Muslim man and just found the discussion about what to do really off-putting. But it as off-putting because it was so exactly what would happen if the scenario came to be, which I really respect Waldman for nailing. I might try it again and force myself past that part to get to the more interesting parts later.

  • Laura November 17, 2011, 9:51 pm

    This is a great post. I started The Leftovers, like it, but got distracted by something else. I also want to read the Submission, but your points are very interesting. Thanks!

    • Kim November 19, 2011, 9:19 am

      I can’t say much about The Submission, other than why I stopped reading, but I do think it’s a book I will return to.