It's all too easy to poke fun at the shallowness and sprawl of modern suburbia, its cookie-cutter homes, impeccable lawns and armadas of gas-guzzling SUVs. So when a writer comes along with a fresh, sharp satire that casts suburbia in a new fluorescent light without dredging up the same old tired complaints, it's truly something to get excited about.
Tom Perrotta's LITTLE CHILDREN is just that: a scathing novel that lampoons suburbia and captures a particular moment in the very recent past with such knowing detail and verve that it risks seeming outdated before the paperback is even published. Regardless, it has such a keen insight into the emotional lives of its characters and their world that it should stand as representative of the early '00s for many years to come.
LITTLE CHILDREN is set in a Boston suburb called Bennington, the land of the supermom, "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." Sarah, the novel's main character, is not a supermom, however; she considers herself an outsider, better educated, highly opinionated and openly liberal. But she is cowed by a life of sexual confusion and safe choices that have led to a marriage with a much older man she doesn't love and a demanding three-year-old daughter named Lucy. Feeling "trapped in Kidworld," she has to remind herself constantly "to think like an anthropologist. I'm a researcher studying the behavior of boring suburban women. I am not a boring suburban woman myself."
The behavior of these "boring suburban women" includes mooning over a mysterious, chiseled stay-at-home dad who brings his three-year-old son to the neighborhood playground. In truth, Todd is supposed to be studying for his third attempt at the bar exam, but he spends his days playing with Aaron and his evenings watching a gang of teenage skateboarders practicing moves on the front steps of the public library.
Of the gaggle of moms at the playground, only Sarah --- plain-looking, out of shape and with a frazzled, frizzy head of hair --- has the nerve to talk to him, and their first encounter sparks a steamy affair. With their children napping upstairs, they make love downstairs, seeming to locate in each other everything their lives are lacking: "there were transactions between people that occurred on some mysterious level beneath the skin, or maybe even beyond the body." Sarah and Todd's relationship allows them to transcend outside the constraints of their lives for a few short, happy moments before the world crashes back in on them.
Perrotta weaves into this romance a few subplots --- Sarah's feud with a smug supermom, her husband's addiction to an Internet porn site, Todd's midnight football team --- that give the novel added depth and texture. Best of these is the arrival of Ronnie McGorvey, a convicted child molester and possible murderer who moves in with his mother, setting off a crisis among the "decent people" of Bennington. Neither defending nor vilifying Ronnie, Perrotta presents him as simply human and fallible, maladjusted but at least trying to be a good son, and his presence raises moral issues that dramatically increase the emotional and satirical impact of the story.
What makes LITTLE CHILDREN more than just satire are the immediately recognizable and sympathetic characters like Sarah, Todd and Ronnie, who bristle against the constraints and compromises of suburban life, who realize they "can either accept a life of misery or struggle against it." Perrotta understands the attraction to the suburbs, the comforting, mindless security, both financial and social, that for so many people represent the American Dream. That he manages to find new ways to expose the superficiality of this lifestyle makes LITTLE CHILDREN an edgy, hilarious read; that he does so without belittling his characters or denying their investment in their community makes it remarkably memorable well beyond the moment it documents.
Reviewed by Stephen M. Deusner on December 30, 2010