Who are these people? Who are the people who live inside popular American "literary" fiction? Working in a bookstore, these novels cross my counter all day long, and my customers ask me "Have you read this? Have you read that?" In order to prove I am not a complete elitist snob when it comes to bestsellers, I have to pick up the occasional popular novel and read it. Usually I wait 'til a used copy comes in so I can borrow it, read it, and return it.
This is what I did with Little Children by Tom Perrotta. Perrotta is the author of Election, which was made into the funny indie movie by Alexander Payne, starring Reese Witherspoon and Matthew Broderick. I knew Little Children was about bored parents of young children who hang out at the playground, and since this was kind of my life up until last year, I thought I'd give it a whirl. But as soon as I started, I had to ask myself: "Who are these people??"
In Little Children, two parents of toddlers start up an affair during the long summer months, while their spouses remain somewhat disengaged and oblivious. Todd, the "Prom King," as the ladies at the playground have taken to calling the handsome stay-at-home dad, has failed the bar exam twice and is married to a stunning documentary filmmaker named Kathy who is supporting the family on her meager income. Sarah, the too-smart-for-suburbia mom with frizzy hair and low self-esteem, uses her affair with Todd to validate her life and give it some kind of shape and meaning. Todd also gets wrapped up in a late night touch football league with some of the local dads, including Larry, a retired cop hell-bent on outing and punishing the newly-paroled child molester who has recently moved in with his mother on Blueberry Court.
Maybe I live in a bubble, and if so, I'm glad of that. Because these suburban cardboard cut-out characters found in most popular fiction are so dreadfully one-dimensional it makes me want to hurl. And this is not necessarily the fault of this writer, who is perfectly capable of constructing a page-turning plot, but I fear it's the fault of our country and society which create these people and somehow turn them into literary models that the average reader can relate to. It's like watching reality TV and thinking, "Wow, is everyone in this country really only concerned with looking hot, hooking up with someone who looks hot, and getting a lot of money?" In the world of Little Children, these people all live in the suburbs and see nothing beyond their kids, their marriages and their petty obsessions. Except for one brief discussion of Madame Bovary, no one in this book seems to be able to use their brain for anything beyond whatever is right in front of them.
What is ultimately frustrating is that I don't believe Perrotta is really making any cynical or postmodern statement about the shallow lives of people in the suburbs, because he seems to find their lifestyle perfectly acceptable as a jumping-off point for his storytelling. He even embellishes them with such attributes as "documentary filmmaker" and "retired cop," as if just saying these things will make these characters all of a sudden spring to life and have some kind of depth. The deeper problem is that these people exist at all, even if they are imaginary. Desperate Housewives is more aware of itself than this book.
Some of the descriptions of the tedious routine of caring for young children do fit the bill, though, and it's pretty entertaining and comforting to know that others find the lifestyle a bit, well, stultifying. As gratifying as it is to be the stay-at-home parent for your little one, there comes a point where you really resent your spouse for being able to get dressed and go to work every day. Now that I go to work almost every day, and my son is in preschool, I occasionally have those moments of missing the simplicity and regularity of a day ruled by meals, playtime, and naps. No wonder Todd and Sarah decide to have an affair in the book. Why not? They've got nothing better to do during naptime!
I did find Little Children ultimately entertaining, except for the long drawn-out descriptions of Todd's touch football games which made my eyes glaze over and drool drip down my chin. Snore. The sub-plot of the child molester living in their midst mixes up the intrigue to a somewhat suspenseful finish, and as much as I found everyone in the book boring beyond belief, I did want to know what was going to happen. So either this means Tom Perrotta's a good writer, or I need to get a life.
Little Children by Tom Perrotta
Paperback. 368 pages.