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Cannonball Read III: Little Children by Tom Perrotta

By Clementine Bojangles | Books | May 25, 2011 |

By Clementine Bojangles | Books | May 25, 2011 |

Sarah is a former feminist who is surprised to find herself a stay-at-home mom to her three-year-old daughter. Her husband Richard has become increasingly more withdrawn, retreating into an emotional affair with a small-time online porn star. When Sarah meets Todd, a stay-at-home dad (dubbed “the Prom King” by the other mothers at the playground), the two are shocked to find that there is chemistry between them. They begin a heated and ill-advised affair while the community around them is distracted and enraged by the recent arrival of a convicted child molester.

Tom Perrotta’s Little Children is a layered, nuanced look at modern life in suburbia. It’s certainly different—if not more difficult—material than what I normally read and review on the blog. However, it’s a book that has been on my TBR-pile for years now, and I’m glad that I finally got a chance to tackle it. Known previously for his darkly humorous novel Election (which spawned the eponymous Reese Witherspoon and Matthew Broderick movie), Perrotta’s Little Children was a marked change of tone. This is a really depressing book, you guys. Although there are humorous moments, Perrotta’s peek into the lives of these bored, disappointed thirty-somethings living in an unnamed suburb (somewhere outside Boston?) doesn’t exactly paint a picture of domestic bliss.

It starts with the title itself, of course. Even though it could refer to the fact that these characters are parents to toddlers, Perrotta’s title really refers to the way in which these educated, adult characters behave. Everyone in the novel struggles with controlling their inhibitions and emotions, and as a result, they manage to get themselves into a whole mess of crap. Sarah and Todd enter into an affair; Richard becomes more obsessed with Slutty Kay; Ronnie the pedophile can’t seem to stay away from the playground; and so on and so forth.

Perrotta writes with a sharp sense of humor and also a keen eye for creating a claustrophobic suburban setting. He creates characters that feel real-almost like you might know them in your actual life. He manages to get into the minds of these deeply unhappy people and offers up an almost acerbic look at their lives.

Near the beginning of the novel, Sarah sits at the park:

The young mothers were telling each other how tired they were. This was one of their favorite topics, along with the eating, sleeping and defecating habits of their offspring, the merits of certain local nursery schools, and the difficulty of sticking to an exercise routine. Smiling politely to mask a familiar feeling of desperation, Sarah reminded herself to think like an anthropologist. I’m a researcher studying the behavior of boring suburban women. I am not a boring suburban woman myself.

Of course, Sarah is exactly that, which is partly why she finds herself so drawn to the boyishly handsome Todd. It’s not just Sarah, though: every single adult in this story is bored and oppressed by their life. Each spouse in the story seems to be dreaming of some sort of escape, but the irony is that they mostly seem to think that their freedom lies in being with someone else. In this way, Perrotta is ruthless in tearing apart the idea of the suburban American dream. However, it’s clear that he also has affection for all of his characters, and that is what allows this novel to work. Even the characters who are supposed to be the most reviled have moments where the reader is sympathetic to their plight. No one is one-dimensional or a complete stereotype.

This is not a novel for everyone. It’s dense and full of characters who are mostly irritating. Everyone in the novel makes terrible mistakes (it’s so easy to sit and judge from outside the pages, though, isn’t it?), and no one seems to learn from them. Readers who can’t wrap their heads around extramarital affairs should probably look elsewhere. Readers looking for a light beach read should definitely keep walking. But those who want a little meat to their story and some heft to their characters might just find an interesting read here.

For more of Clementine Bojangles’ reviews, check out her blog, Early Nerd Special.

This review is part of Cannonball Read III. For more information, click here.