The Leftovers by Tom Perrotta (2011)

The Leftovers is a story with a truly fascinating plot line: several years before the book’s action one-third of the world’s population suddenly disappeared in a supernatural event that some believed to be the biblical Rapture, soon purposely re-branded by Christians as the “Sudden Departure” when they realized many of their devout had been left behind. The missing never returned, causing shock, grief and chaos around the globe with the Leftovers wondering how to put their lives back together. Existing religions have begun to crumble, the once-faithful no longer believe in their promises of salvation. In their place several alternative religious cults have emerged; the two which affect the action of the book are The Guilty Remnant (where members forgo family, wealth, even speaking and whose sole purpose to is torment those whose lives have returned to normal) and Holy Wayne movement (led by a false prophet who tells members he can hug away their pain.)

The book focuses on a few residents of a small east coast town, Mapleton, as they struggle to move forward. We meet Kevin, town mayor and father of two, whose wife Laurie has left him to join the Guilty Remnant which requires her to divorce him and never to speak with her family again. Their son Tom has run off to join to Holy Wayne movement; their daughter Jill has fallen into wild behavior and lethargy in the face of her mom and brother’s abandonment. Aimee is an orphaned teen living with Jill and Kevin — badly influencing Jill, inappropriately tempting Kevin. We also meet Meg, Laurie’s religious partner and surrogate daughter in the Guilty Remnant, and Nora, a neighbor and part-time love interest for Kevin, whose entire family disappeared during the Sudden Departure and is just now unsteadily putting her life back together. The group members all have missteps and moments of doubt as the years unspool; the religious struggling to stay committed, the left behind struggling to start new lives without the missing.

Starting out very strong, the story introduces the characters and details their internal and external struggles with the missing and the new world order the Sudden Departure has created. Sadly, the book loses momentum midway through and never regains it. The author seems to stall out, unsure what direction the characters should move; his intensity fizzles out.  The plot action slows in lieu of too much internal development of the characters: what was once well-paced action gives way to unnecessarily complicated plot lines that go nowhere or end abruptly. It feels frustrating to be forced to spend time so much getting to know the characters, only to have Perrotta dash off half-hearted endings for them.

In addition, the author’s early chapters seemed to hint that the book was going to offer some stinging criticism of religion, but that never develops. The tension between traditional religions and the cults would have been an interesting subplot, but the author keeps it as a footnote. Similarly, the development of the cult the Guilty Remnant could have focused more on the group dynamics rather than the minutiae of the cult members’ day-to-day lives and the relationship between just two members — Meg and Laurie — and so it seems like another missed opportunity.

Perhaps in the hands of a more accomplished writer, such as Stephen King, the subject could have really come to life rather than feeling like a half-hearted attempt at psychological supernatural thriller. Under the Dome stands as a much better discussion of life after an unexplained phenomenon than Leftovers.

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