Adventures in American Literature #6: Little Children

Tom Perrotta (b. 1961) – Little Children (2004)

I might never have read this novel if not for a recent turns of events in which the newsstand next to my local train station recently started selling old paperbacks. (Three dollars well spent.) It’s funny how you can be vaguely aware of something – a novel, a movie, whatever it is – and yet not have any pointed interest in seeking it out until some random circumstance gives you the opportunity. I’d heard of Tom Perrotta and I knew that his novels Election and Little Children had been turned into movies, but I’d never tried reading his novels (or seeing the movies, for that matter). I’d never chanced upon Perrotta’s books in the library or in any bookstore and anyway I had not actively sought them out. I’m glad, though, that I found Little Children.

Many critics have alluded to this novel as a satire and – more oddly – as a definitely comic novel. I read it as a drama more than anything else and quite a tragic one at that. Yes, some of the situations in the story may seem a little too dramatic not to be absurd, but for the reader/critic to consider those actions “comic,” the most accurate parallel is a moviegoer who is unable to connect to the drama in a movie and thus feels there is no better response than to laugh. People always laugh at things they are uncomfortable with, so critics respond to Little Children’s suburban parents trying to escape boredom through affairs by calling it comedy. If you ask me, the protagonists are clearly tragic; after all, the fact that the main female protagonist, Sarah, joins a book club that discusses Madame Bovary is a plot element that happens for a reason. Little Children’s grown-ups, who have never been able to fully transition to responsible adult lives try so hard to be part of love stories and find happy endings even though success is never a realistic option.

Little Children is by no means a perfect novel, but it is very readable. It’s the kind of book you just don’t want to put down. Some sections of the narrative are overly detailed, like explanations of specific passes and plays in football which only an expert in the subject would be able to stay focused on, and few of the chapters about supporting characters are actually as interesting as the chapters concentrating on the main protagonists, Sarah and Todd. The nice thing, however, is that Perrotta crafts every character, from the most significant one to the least significant one, with care. He makes the reader feel as intensely woven into characters’ interconnected webs as the characters are themselves. I recommend this read.

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