Title: The Leftovers
Author: Tom Perrotta
Acquired: From the publisher for review consideration
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.
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!