Tom Perrotta’s previous novels — “The Wishbones” (1997), “Election” (1998) and “Joe College” (2000) — were funny, relaxed and deeper than they looked. A sharp satirist was lurking behind an easy-breezy style that seduced readers into thinking these were light comedies, not light tragedies.
When “Election” was made into a movie in 1999, it got the same reaction. Viewers laughed at the foibles of Reese Witherspoon and Matthew Broderick and didn’t notice that they were brought down by pride and envy and lust, three of the seven deadly sins.
It’s too early to tell if Perrotta’s new novel will get the same reaction, but here’s a clue about his intentions: He called his book “Little Children,” and the main characters are adults — adults in advanced stages of arrested development and perpetual adolescence, but adults.
It’s not that he’s mocking them (Perrotta has empathy for everyone, even the child molester); it’s that he knows them so well they can’t hide their true selves behind a veneer of humor or sarcasm.
Create a character who resents being a wife and mother, a college feminist who experimented with lesbianism, quit graduate school and wound up working at Starbucks before the slide into the suburbs, and you’ve got yourself a pretty good caricature. Get inside her head and have her notice the telling details, and you’ve got a character:
“Her copy of ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ was lying cover down, on top of ‘The Berenstain Bears Visit the Dentist,’ and the sight of the two books filled her with an odd sense of shame. She felt a sudden burst of kinship for those medieval flagellants who used to walk through town, publicly thrashing themselves to atone for their sins. Pretty soon she’d be packing a whip in the diaper bag.”
Makes it look easy, doesn’t he? And it’s funny, too. Perrotta does it over and over in “Little Children,” following one character for a while, watching him or her get into trouble, then moving on to someone else.
The book does have a plot. Sarah, the barista-turned-young-mom, accepts a dare from the other mothers in her daughter’s play group and strikes up a conversation with Todd, a stay-at-home dad they’ve dubbed “the Prom King” for his good looks. The conversation becomes a kiss and the kiss becomes an affair, much to the displeasure of the other moms.
Sarah and Todd are frustrated with their lives and are looking for something genuine that will help them find out who they really are. Their spouses (Richard and Kathy, respectively) are detached and devoted to outside interests, Richard to Internet pornography and Kathy to a documentary she’s making about the Greatest Generation.
Todd gets roped into playing touch football in a midnight league by Larry, an ex-cop. Larry’s trying to find redemption for his past by forming “the Committee of Concerned Parents,” a one-man vigilante gang designed to force Ronald, a convicted child molester just out of jail, to leave the neighborhood.
For all its surface appeal and adroit cultural references, “Little Children” is a novel about time and the way it catches everyone, whether they are running or standing still. Children get older and become parents themselves, sometimes without growing up, and look back at their lives and ask, “How did that happen?” Perrotta can tell them.
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