Little Children by Tom Perrotta

I have an odd relationship to “suburbia” as a place and as a concept. Having grown up mostly in small town environments I find myself in a sort of no man’s land. I am not really a urban type but neither I am I really a country person. I can honestly see myself living in either. I now live in “the city” but in what might be called the old line suburbs of the city. I am within the city limits but I don’t live downtown or in an urban setting per se. My house is a split level ranch and it is in a subdivision. Am I a suburbanite? I don’t seem to fit neatly in any category.

When people attack urban sprawl and the soul deadening nature of “suburbia” I tend to have a negative reaction and jump to defend these type of places. I shop in big block shopping centers that so many decry. But on the other hand I can see the appeal of more close knit communities where you don’t need a car and where real neighborhoods can develop. I understand how easy it is to be disconnected from your community when your everyday activities happen in spread out areas, where everything is car orientated, etc.

Why do I bring this up? I just finished reading Little Children by Tom Perrotta which is viewed by many as a satire on suburban living. But having read it, it didn’t strike me as a satire of suburbia so much as an exploration of the lives of families that happen to live in suburbia. If you take the characters and put them in a more urban setting I don’t see that the issues change so much as the furniture of their lives may change.

It seems to me that what Perrotta captures so exquisitely is the slippery nature of our dreams and desires. All of the characters at some point come to the conclusion that their life has not developed in the way they had hoped and planned. Perrotta captures the tragic and comic results of this realization with insight and humor. Depending on your experience with some of the issues (marriage, adultery, parenting, etc.) you might find the writing cuts too close to the bone or unrelated to your life, but I found Little Children to be an enjoyable and thought provoking look at modern family relations.

The novel follows a couple of families living in a fictional Boston suburb called Bellington. The Publishers Weekly snippet captures these characters almost perfectly:

There’s Sarah, an erstwhile bisexual feminist who finds herself an unhappy mother and wife to a branding consultant addicted to Internet porn. There’s Todd, a handsome ex-jock and stay-at-home dad known to neighborhood housewives as the Prom King, who finds in house-husbandry and reveries about his teenage glory days a comforting alternative to his wife’s demands that he pass the bar and get on with a law career. There’s Mary Ann, an uptight supermom who schedules sex with her husband every Tuesday at nine and already has her well-drilled four-year-old on the inside track to Harvard. And there’s Ronnie, a pedophile whose return from prison throws the school district into an uproar, and his mother, May, who still harbors hopes that her son will turn out well after all.

Todd and Sarah, thrown together by chance and a dare at the playground, start a passionate affair that threatens to upset all of these fragile lives. Everyone seems intent on pursuing their own pleasure and fulfillment at the expense of those around them. They find themselves trapped in a life they never imagined and are looking for an escape. Each of them believe, however, that if they could just manage to achieve this or that goal then things would fall into place.

Going over some of the reviews of the book when it came out, I found David Klinghoffer’s (National Review June 14, 2005) most mirrored my own reaction. Klinghoffer notes that suburbia is by its nature a place where we create stories about ourselves:

For Perrotta, suburban life is premised on a certain kind of story you tell yourself . . . In the suburbs, even though you’re only minutes from the city, it’s like you live in the woods, a lovely and minutely planned kind of rural-urban countryside. The story you tell yourself is one of being cast back into a pastoral 1950s alternative reality of horses, grass, woods, innocence . . . Perrotta’s characters are all telling themselves stories, about themselves.

I think this gets at something important. A philosophy professor I had said something once that has always stuck with me: “The worst kind of lies are the ones you tell yourself.” Much of the conflict in the story is between the life the characters see themselves leading and the ones they actually find themselves living. It doesn’t take long for these type of comparisons to make them unhappy. The search for the perfect life can be a corrosive and destructive path.

The other aspect that Klinghoffer, and the other reviews, note is the sympathetic way Perrotta skewers his characters. Yes, he exposes their foibles and weaknesses but he does so in a almost caring way.

What’s wonderful about Perrotta’s book is that however contemptible his characters may at first sound, he loves them and elicits our care and concern as well. Maybe this is how God sees us.

Lastly, I agree with Klinghoffer that this is not an anti-suburbia book. Rather it is a book about human nature:

The truth is that, to one degree or another, like the men and women in Little Children, we are all our mothers’ children, play-acting at being adults, many of us not doing a very good job of it.

I am not sure I agree wholeheartedly with Klinghoffer, however, as he views suburbia as more central than I do:

This is not an anti-suburb novel. It’s simply about a kind of human foible, common in Boston no less than in Bellington, that seems to find its most apt, its most poetic, expression in suburban existence. Storytelling, fooling yourself, may be done in the city or country, but only the suburb was specially designed for it.

I am not so sure I see a geographic or cultural place that is designed for storytelling or a particular form of self-deception. Rather I think this is simply a part of human nature. Does living in an urban setting remove the temptation to upend your life because it didn’t turn out how you thought it would? Do relationships not face the same dangers of complacency and stagnation in the city? Do people who live in the country not find themselves feeling trapped in a life they planned on living?

I think the power of Perrotta’s story is that the issues underlying it are universal. Some of the characteristics might be exaggerated but the challenge of building lasting relationships, stable families, healthy communities cuts across boundaries. What hit me after finishing the novel was the emptiness of pursuing self-fulfillment for its own sake.

Perhaps this is my imposing my beliefs and ideas on the story, but I read the book as a cautionary tale. The characters drift along and find themselves in untenable situations; they act on their emotional and physical desire without thinking about how their actions might impact those around them.

Whatever you take away from the story – whether biting satire, social commentary, wry entertainment, or all of the above – Little Children is an artful and perceptive look at modern life through the eyes of suburban families.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

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