The Rapture. I’m sure you’ve heard of it. It’s the belief held by most Christians that, at the end times, the faithful will be lifted up to heaven, disappearing from the earth, leaving the unfaithful behind. But what if the Rapture actually occurred, but it wasn’t really the Rapture?
This is the question posed by Tom Perrotta in The Leftovers. In the novel, a Rapture-like event occurs, where millions of people around the world simply vanish. Except that this Rapture, instead of resulting in the disappearance of the Christian faithful, appears to be random. People from all walks of life, and from all faiths disappeared. In the aftermath of the Sudden Departure, as it’s referred to, society tries to pick up and carry on with life. There’s speculation as to what actually happened. Some say it was the Rapture. Others say it was a natural event, such as the planet’s immune response to too many people. Whatever the explanation, it only serves as background, and the novel instead focuses on the social aftermath of the Sudden Departure, primarily focused on one family, the Garveys.
The novel starts (after the prologue) on the three year anniversary of the Sudden Departure as a parade for the Heroes’ Day of Remembrance begins through the town of Mapleton. We are introduced to the characters and how each has reacted to the changed world. Kevin Garvey, the patriarch of the family, has been elected as town mayor, and does his best to continue handling business and juggle his disintegrating family. His wife, Laurie, has left him to join a nihilistic cult known as the Guilty Remnant, who believe that the world has essentially ended and people need to be reminded of the fact that nothing else now matters. Their daughter Jill, who was an eyewitness as her friend disappeared while right next to her, and has gone from being a star student to a rebellious teenager in the vein of the movie “Thirteen.” And their son, Tom, has joined a different cult known as the Church of the Holy Wayne, a cult with a charismatic leader who has recently been arrested on a large number of charges. In addition, another character, Nora, whose entire family disappeared in the Sudden Departure, becomes loosely involved with the Garveys and their story.
The Leftovers follows these characters lives for approximately six months following the third anniversary of the Sudden Departure. It’s a slice-of-life novel about these characters’ struggles and their changing lives during this period. And, with the exception of some minor speculation at the beginning about the nature of the event, the Sudden Departure doesn’t play a big roll in the novel altogether. This novel could be about a family’s struggles after any national or global tragedy. It becomes a fairly generic family struggle in the wake of these events, with the possible exception of a major cult presence.
And this is the biggest problem with The Leftovers. What makes it stand out…is that it doesn’t really stand out. It could have been any disaster that causes people to search for themselves and to lose family members. The Sudden Departure itself turns out not to be that significant to the story, and the family’s struggles are generic if a bit extreme. As such, The Leftovers failed to grip me, which is likely why it took me so long to finish it and the more I read, the more it felt like I was going through my own kind of struggle.
Which is a major problem. It’s so generic that, at the end, I had to ask myself what the point was. Which may be the point itself. I recall that the Center for Disease Control recently issued guidelines for how to prepare for a zombie apocalypse. It wasn’t serious, but their point was that most disasters call for the same type of preparation (food, water, blankets, etc.). This could be the point of the The Leftovers, that being that personal and family struggles during different disasters may change their form, but at the end are all similar.
There’s a certain underlying dark humor to the novel. The language is accessible and beautiful at the same time, and the characters are most definitely believable. Some of the characters are simply average, and others you just downright doesn’t like. In fact, I didn’t like most of the characters. Most of them are too self-centered for me to care about what happens to them.
Ultimately, I can’t give The Leftovers a recommendation. It ultimately felt too generic and near the end I found myself detesting the characters and wanting to give up on the book. There are small elements to like about the novel that prevent me from giving it a bottom rating, and maybe others will find more to like about the book than I did, but in the end, it’s not for me.
The Leftovers by Tom Perrotta earns 2 out of 5 stars.
Note: A free Advanced Reader’s Edition of this book was sent to this reviewer by St. Martin’s Press through a Goodreads First Read giveaway. This did not affect this review in any way.