The Leftovers, A Review by Claire Rudy Foster

The Leftovers. Tom Perrotta. St. Martin’s Press, 2011.


On October 14th, a “Rapture-like event” whisks away half the world’s population. It’s called the Sudden Departure. In the blink of an eye, and seemingly without any logic, friends and family members vanish. The post-Departure world is a strange, morally ambiguous place—a perfect playground for Tom Perrotta’s latest novel The Leftovers.

It’s impossible to read The Leftovers without comparing it with Perrotta’s two prior works, Little Children and The Abstinence Teacher. Themes of morality, sex, shame, and contemporary Christianity weave through all three books, though The Leftovers takes the most explicit position of the bunch. By turns cynical and compassionate, Perrotta’s work seems to argue in favor of imperfection. He makes the case that humans, despite our best intentions, will always make mistakes—and not every mistake is a learning experience.  This idea plays out in a powerful way for the character Jill in The Leftovers. After her former best friend disappears in the Sudden Departure, Jill also loses her mother (who joins a cult called the Guilty Remnant) and her older brother (who becomes part of a messianic Christian group that wants to “hug the pain away”). She’s stranded in adolescence, with only her father to parent her. “She got drunk for the first time, smoked weed, stayed up till dawn talking to people she used to ignore in the hallway, people she’d written off as losers and burnouts. One night, on a dare, she took off her clothes and jumped into Mark Sollers’ pool. When she climbed out a few minutes later, naked and dripping in front of her new friends, she felt like a different person, like her former self had been washed away.”

Baptized or not, Jill feels little or no guilt for her choices, and when Perrotta enters teenage girl territory the voice is surprising, light and dark by turns—he may have taken a page from The Virgin Suicides or The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Jill is an unusual choice of narrator for Perrotta, who tends to stick with an adult perspective. Children are collateral—or else, as in Little Children, all adults are child-like in some sense, still grasping and bossy and selfish, too trusting and short-sighted.

And hovering over this surreal landscape of faith, family, ritual, and superstition is the specter of the Sudden Departure. “The coverage felt different from that of September 11th, when the networks had shown the burning towers over and over. October 14th was more amorphous, harder to pin down: There were massive highway pileups, some train wrecks, numerous small-plane and helicopter crashes—luckily, no big passenger jets went down in the United States, though several had to be landed by terrified co-pilots, and one by a flight attendant who’d become a folk hero for a little while, one bright spot in a sea of darkness—but the media was never able to settle upon a single visual image to evoke the catastrophe. There weren’t any bad guys to hate, which made everything that much harder to get into focus.”

The Leftovers is Perrotta’s most ambitious work to date. Taking aim at America’s foibles—as it argues in favor of human nature—this novel is a conversation starter, provocative and often unexpected. Perrotta extends ideas from his earlier works, this time with a sharper focus, a sharper eye, and a much, much sharper tongue. (Claire Rudy Foster)


Claire Rudy Foster lives in Portland, Oregon. Her short stories have been recently nominated for an AWP award, a Pushcart Prize, and a Best of the Web award. Her fiction has appeared in Vestal ReviewThe Ink-Filled Page and Fogged Clarity, among others. She is a graduate of Reed College and the MFA in Writing program at Pacific University. In a perfect world, she would spend her life sitting in a comfortable, sunlit chair for hours with a stack of books and a sandwich.


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