Last May you couldn't get away from chatter about the alleged impending Rapture. Biblical scholar Harold Camping had decreed that May 21 would be the day that the true believers in Christ would be transported to heaven, while the nonbelievers would be left behind to face the end of the world. Some people joked; others prepared. And whether you believed in the Rapture or not, it was hard not to think ... what if?
In Tom Perrotta's latest novel, "The Leftovers," he returns to the familiar suburban setting of his previous novels but with half as many characters. When the "Sudden Departure" occurs, millions of people around the world -- true believers and nonbelievers alike -- simply disappear in an "indiscriminate Rapture." In the town of Mapleton, the young and old struggle through their daily lives as they come to grips with losing family members and childhood friends, while cults such as the Healing Hug Movement, the Barefoot People and the Guilty Remnant (also known as the Watchers) prey upon the vulnerable and the grieving survivors. Suburban life carries on -- the softball league has to find more players, Mapleton needs a new mayor -- but with the nagging feeling that your third baseman, here today, may be gone tomorrow.
The Garvey family did not lose any family members to the Sudden Departure, but lost them instead to the aftermath of emotion and rudderless activity that envelops the entire community. Kevin Garvey's wife, Laurie, leaves him for the Guilty Remnant, while his son chooses to seek a father figure in the charismatic leader of the Healing Hug Movement. Kevin's teenage daughter lives at home, but spends her time drinking and playing a more adventurous version of "Spin the Bottle" with other bored teenagers.
Meanwhile, Kevin takes on the role of Mapleton's new mayor, with no real agenda except to try to bring together a town that is about to fall apart.
Perrotta has a gifted ear for dialogue and a distinct appreciation for the particularities of suburban life. However, it was difficult to understand what motivated his characters to make the choices they did. There was an emptiness to their actions that could not be attributed to the Sudden Departure or the grieving process, so that in one pivotal scene between Laurie Garvey and her fellow Watcher, Meg, it feels as though the reader is encouraged to find emotion where there is none. The premise of "The Leftovers," and Perrotta's sharp wit, may pull some readers in, but in the end may leave others behind.
- Meganne Fabrega is a freelance writer and a member of the National Book Critics Circle.