Little Children by Tom Perrotta
St. Martin’s Press, 1st edition, 2004
Genre: Satire, literary fiction
Synopsis & Review: After dropping out of grad school, Sarah dove into a quick marriage with an older, divorced man simply because she couldn’t bear her loneliness any longer. And at the novel’s start, she finds herself observing the other mothers with their children, desperately trying to distance herself from their suburban ordinariness. She reminds herself to think like an anthropologist in a phrase which perfectly encapsulates Sarah’s problems: “I’m a researcher studying the behavior of boring suburban women. I am not a boring suburban woman myself.” Sarah doesn’t love her husband, having settled for him, and her small daughter seems like a stranger, an inexplicable stranger. She cannot seem to get motherhood “right” as it is dictated by her peers in the park who have mastered the intricacies of napping, strollers, and snack time, and so Sarah flounders.
So enter the Prom King. Todd is a stay at home dad (SAHD), already unusual in this sheltered little world, but even more unusually, he is handsome, throwing the mothers into a fluster whenever he appears. Though they enjoy the titillation of his proximity, they also resent him because they feel they need to be pretty for his appearances. Mary Ann, the most domineering and conservative of the mothers, dares Sarah to approach Todd and get his number. And when Sarah does, things … change. They kiss. Something begins.
Though his background differs entirely from Sarah’s, being filled with football games, popularity, and frat parties, Todd suffers from much of the same malaise. He stays home with his son Aaron while his lovely wife Kathy works as a documentarian, supporting the family just until Todd passes the bar exam and becomes a lawyer who will rake in enough cash for them to live comfortably. Rather than study for his third try at the bar (no JFK Jr jokes, please), Todd spends his evenings watching skateboarders, envying their self-absorption (HINT HINT) and mourning his own rapidly disappearing youth. But Todd gets an opportunity to recapture his youthful glories on a brightly lit field when a former neighbor introduces him to an informal night football league, and again in Sarah’s worshipful admiration.
Elsewhere in the subdivision, a registered sex offender comes home to roost. Released from prison into his mother’s home, Ronnie McGorvey–convicted of exposing himself to a Girl Scout and widely believed to be responsible for the disappearance of a nine-year-old girl several years previous–brings a clandestine excitement to the community, which works itself into a frenzy of fear and rage at his presence. From flyers and town meetings to harassment and graffiti, Ronnie never stops being a focus for the anxieties of suburbia. His mother, however, thinks he just needs to settle down with a nice girl, and tries to set Ronnie up on dates. Ronnie’s appearance and subsequent ejection from the community pool, followed by a sudden rainstorm, becomes the catalyst that sends Sarah and Todd from mere flirtation and tentative friendship into adultery.
“Marry in haste, repent at leisure.” Those were Ma’s words when Laura announced that she and Almanzo wished to not delay their wedding. (About Laura’s choice of wedding dress, she said something like, “Marry in black, you’ll wish yourself back.” Ma wasn’t batting .300 in These Happy Golden Years.) However, Sarah in Tom Perrotta’s Little Children, proves Ma’s rule.
I watched Little Children first, and impressed, made a mental note to read the book. In January, with my nuptials fast approaching, I requested it from the MCL, but when I told my sisters that I’d read Revolutionary Road and meant to read Little Children (and The Group), they shouted “NO! BAD, NAUGHTY, STUPID GIRL!” and whacked me on the nose with a rolled up newspaper. I had my revenge, though: I made Eli watch it OnDemand late one night on our honeymoon. Nothing augurs a good marriage like that! Haha. So Little Children ended up being one of the first few books I read upon returning home and settling into a not very different life of marriage.
I had no idea that Little Children’s author Tom Perrotta also wrote Election (or even that Election was a book :/), but the resemblance should have been obvious. Both are wickedly funny satires, but they also have veins of sympathy and kindness running through them, especially Little Children, a later work about older people. Perrotta has a satiric genius for creating characters we can’t help but hate: the unrepentant child molester, the aggressive and intolerant helicopter mother, the loutish ex-cop. And then he pulls the rug out from under us by showing the depths of humanity present below their dreadful exteriors. Though Mary Ann is hateful, pressuring her four year old son to go to Harvard, dominating the other mothers in her circle, and with nary a nice or tolerant word for anyone, when she presents herself to her husband for their weekly sex date (she’s all about scheduling and timetables) and he refuses to oblige, we can’t help but cringe sympathetically as she deflates. Even Ronnie becomes an object of compassion as he and his mother struggle to maintain a sense of normality in their lives.
Despite the subject matter, Little Children isn’t high melodrama or a soap opera. It concerns itself with the little things of everyday life, the grinding routine that comforts some and demoralizes others. Like Revolutionary Road, Little Children’s protagonists Sarah and Todd have reached a plateau in their lives, and from their vantage point, they see nothing extraordinary about their lives. Instead, they face the very ordinariness about their lives that their ambitions and dreams never included. And so they rebel against that ordinariness with adultery, in itself a prosaic and ordinary thing, but so selfish and wrapped up in their own desires are Sarah and Todd that they can’t see things that way. When they do finally realize what they’re doing, both are shocked out of the stupor their lusts have put them in, Sarah by the realization that like Emma Bovary, she keeps picking losers, and Todd by the recognition that all he wanted from Sarah was the excitement, not a new beginning.
Madame Bovary is a constant presence in Little Children, from the simple premise of adultery as a reaction to the stifling stability of the middle class (or suburbia), to its appearance at a book club where Sarah finds the camaraderie she’s been searching for (where Mary Ann succinctly brands Emma Bovary as “a slut”). Sarah’s own preoccupation with literary references helps her to navigate her life with more than a trace of smugness. She feels superior to the other mothers because of her education, in her refusal to participate in their parenting rituals, which wars with her insecurity about her inability to conform to those same rituals.
Perrotta’s depiction of parenthood is particularly amusing for me. As I prepared for my own wedding, and Eli and I discussed our expectations for and ideas about parenthood, I read a lot about the subject (this is a recurring theme in my life, you may notice). The spectre of the over-educated, bored SAHM mom who is looming over-protectively over her young, or the parents who spend all their time playing with their children and directing their play rather than letting them make do independently, those are frightening and funny things. The former is especially frightening, since I in no way want to become one, but as Sarah (and so many ladies of ADL, too) discovers, there are no guarantees in life and good intentions won’t protect you. This is a major issue for Eli and me, because we don’t want to raise a passel of insecure, neurotic, sheltered ninnies—you know, the ones helicopter parenting produce. Life isn’t perfect, and you can’t make it perfect. The people of Little Children who believe their parcel of suburbia (or marriage or children or an affair or their pet project or…) is a haven against everything bad in the world are hiding under the covers like the titular children.
Wickedly funny, suspenseful, and moving, I recommend Little Children very highly. The ending is particularly good, less melodramatic than that in the film, and the better for it. (But the movie is very good, especially Jackie Earle Haley, who plays Ronnie.)
Cover: LOVE IT. Two Goldfish—the snack of stoners and children alike—on the close-clipped green lawn of a suburban park (not a playground, mind you, because we protect out children from bumps and scrapes with cushioned plastic surfaces). Simple and suggestive.
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.
“Jerry and I started watching that Jim Carrey movie the other night?”
This was Cheryl, mother of Christian, a husky three-and-a-half-year-old who swaggered around the playground like a Mafia chieftain, shooting the younger children with any object that could plausibly stand in as a gun—a straw, a half-eaten banana, even a Barbie doll that had been abandoned in the sandbox. Sarah despised the boy and found it hard to look his mother in the eye.
“The Pet Guy?” inquired Mary Ann, mother of Troy and Isabelle. “I don’t get it. Since when did passing gas become so hilarious?”
Only since there was human life on earth, Sarah thought, wishing she had the guts to say it out loud. Mary Ann was one of those depressing supermoms, a tiny, elaborately made-up woman who dressed in spandex workout clothes, drove an SUV the size of a UPS van, and listened to conservative talk radio all day. No matter how many hints Sarah dropped to the contrary, Mary Ann refused to believe that any of the other mothers thought any less of Rush Limbaugh or any more of Hillary Clinton than she did. Every day Sarah came to the playground determined to set her straight, and every day she chickened out.
“Not the Pet Guy,” Cheryl said. “The state trooper with the split personality.”
Me, Myself, and Irene, Sarah thought impatiently. By the Farrelly Brothers. Why was it that the other mothers could never remember the titles of anything, not even movies they’d actually seen, while she herself retained lots of useless information about movies she wouldn’t even dream of watching while imprisoned on an airplane, not that she ever got to fly anywhere?
“Oh, I saw that,” said Theresa, mother of Courtney. A big, raspy-voiced woman who often alluded to having drunk too much wine the night before, Theresa was Sarah’s favorite of the group. Sometimes, if no one else was around, the two of them would sneak a cigarette, trading puffs like teenagers and making subversive comments about their husbands and children. When the others arrived, though, Theresa immediately turned into one of them. “I thought it was cute.”
Of course you did, Sarah thought. There was no higher praise at the playground than cute. It meant harmless. Easily absorbed. Posing no threat to smug suburbanites. At her old playground, someone had actually used the c-word to describe American Beauty (not that she’d actually named the film; it was that thing with Kevin what’s-his-name, you know, with the rose petals). That had been the last straw for Sarah. After exploring her options for a few days, she had switched to the Rayburn School playground, only to find that it was the same wherever you went. All the young mothers were tired. They all watched cute movies whose titles they couldn’t remember.
10 February – 11 February