No 338 The Leftovers by Tom Perrotta

Tom Perrotta’s 2011 novel The Leftovers is ostensibly a book about the Rapture, that mythical moment when true believers are transported straight to heaven, but instead it is mainly a book about aftermath.

The novel’s focus is not a religious one and neither does it concern itself with what the ‘Sudden Departure’ as it is called, actually was or why it happened. Instead, set three years after the event, it explores the lives of those left behind and how they come to terms with something so monumental and so inexplicable.

Sooner or later we all lose our loved ones. We all have to suffer, every last one of us.

Set in the small town of Mapleton, the novel barely mentions the outside world, only to let us know that ‘the world of celebrity chefs was especially hard hit’ but instead stays suburban, following Kevin, the town Mayor who, on the surface, seems like one of the lucky ones, having lost no members of his family and Nora, who has become a poster woman for loss, due to her husband and two children disappearing in the middle of dinner.

Nora may seem to have been the worst affected, but even those who have emerged unscathed by the tragedy are having a hard time dealing with what has happened. A local Reverend cannot some to terms with the fact that he did not ‘make the cut’ and now spends his time writing a newsletter filled with scurrilous gossip about those who disappeared. Groups have sprung up across the US, each dealing with the Sudden Departure in different ways. The Barefoot People channel the hippies of the sixties, painting bullseyes on their heads and partying like the world might end again at any moment. The Healing Hug movement forms around a grifter called Holy Wayne – ‘that age-old scoundrel, the Horny Man of God’ – who has a penchant for teenage brides and is waiting for his miracle child to be born.

Most sinister is the Guilty Remnant, a cult-like organisation who abandon their families, take a vow of silence, wear white and stalk the residents trying to get on with their lives. Every time they appear in public, they smoke, proclaiming their ‘faith’ by embracing a habit that will one day kill them, if something else does not first.

It was a lifestyle, not a religion, an ongoing improvisation rooted in the conviction that the post-Rapture world demanded a new way of living, free from the old, discredited forms—no more marriage, no more families, no more consumerism, no more politics, no more conventional religion, no more mindless entertainment. Those days were done. All that remained for humanity was to hunker down and await the inevitable.

Despite his family emerging from the Sudden Departure intact, Kevin’s life disintegrates in the same way as Nora’s as he slowly loses those he loves to these various movements. His son Tom drops out of college to work for Holy Wayne and finds himself playing minder to one of his pregnant brides. Kevin’s daughter Jill attempts to lose herself in drink, drugs and casual sex, while Laurie, Kevin’s wife, abandons her family to join the Guilty Remnant. As Kevin and Nora try to find solace in one another, the implications of what has happened and what continues to happen makes it difficult for them to move on.

The Leftovers is a book about coping mechanisms, about how society is fundamentally changed by a violent upheaval. Having said that, Perrotta is not inclined to explore the event’s social and political fall-out, but instead focuses on the personal, uses the event as an allegory for the emotional distress brought on by worldwide change. The Sudden Departure could be a war, 9/ll or Covid: it is simply a device to explore the human condition.  

Not all of it rings true. Some of the characters feel stock and sometimes clichéd, such a Kevin, the upstanding businessman turned Mayor who thinks life will return to normal thanks to baseball leagues and dances, or Holy Wayne, the religious guru who uses his platform for sex. Interestingly, the female characters are the most intriguing. Nora, who religiously watches an episode of Spongebob Squarepants every evening to feel closer to her lost son, it not only coming to terms with her grief, but is having to deal with being a symbol of everyone else’s grief, unable to move forward because she has ceased to be a person in her own right. Kevin’s wife Laurie is also fascinating and her immersion into the cult of the Guilty Remnant is portrayed with a sensitive and understanding touch, making her fate the hardest to accept.

Perrotta moves confidently between the dramatic and the comic, lightening the sombre mood and giving his narrative an often-soapy feel (it is clear why it was adapted into a TV show) and for all the pain at the heart of the book, he doesn’t forgo a hopeful ending, which contains its own religious overtones.

The Leftovers is a solid character study that some may find light on plot, particularly given the subject matter, but it is an interesting look at resilience and hope in the face of life-changing events.

Read On: Kindle
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Cathy746books View All →

I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!

26 Comments Leave a comment

  1. I’ve always thought this book sounded intriguing… I like books that imagine what would happen *if*. I think I’ll continue to keep this in mind, although now I’m curious about the TV show I didn’t know existed.
    It’s funny that it states that the world of celebrity chefs was hard hit – I wonder why!


  2. I’ve only read one other Perotta, Little Children, and it was fine but didn’t make me want to rush to pick up his other books. That said, I loved the movie version of Election, and The Leftovers show was absolutely fantastic.


  3. Great review. I had heard of the tv series but didn’t realise it was based on a book. I have heard good things about the tv show. Sounds like it’s an interesting idea that could have been pulled off better, perhaps the tv show has improved the material or maybe, as you suggest, is more forgivable for the soapiness.


  4. Hi Cathy – we read this for my book club a LONG time ago, but I recently watched the series – and was totally pulled in. My adult son also watched it. That said, it was pretty bizarre, but I thought the actors were excellent.


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