Little Children is not for the squeamish, for those who wish to skate across the top of the story and see the characters through smudged, wavy window panes. Tom Perrotta, author of Election and, most recently, The Abstinence Teacher, plops his readers into the middle of intimacy. The author pulls back the covers and shows the cadaver on the table. It's exhilarating, unsettling and poignant.
Sarah is a smart woman who succumbed to desperation while a Starbucks barista and married a man who showed interest in her as a sexual being. A few years later, she is a misfit feminist suburban housewife with a demanding 3-year-old daughter and a husband whose regrets and desires are catching up with him. If only those desires involved his life at home....
Todd is studying for the bar while staying at home to raise his 3-year-old son Aaron. His wife, Kathy, spends her days researching her documentary film about World War II vets. While Todd finds ways to avoid the bar exam (including football, harassment and skateboarding), Kathy plans ahead for the time when her dashing "Prom King" will take over the role of breadwinner and allow her what she sees as the luxury and opportunity to stay home with their child (and maybe expand their family).
Everything is quiet and uneventful until Ronnie McGorvey moves back in with his mother, May, on Blueberry Court. Ronnie is a pariah: he was imprisoned for the sexual assault and murder of a Girl Scout selling cookies. Everyone knows about his presence because of the relentless spotlight shone on him by Larry, a former police officer who retired after his fatal shooting of a teenager in the local food court. Larry's sense of purpose has shifted: he tells himself it is the safety of his 4-year-old sons and the other children near Blueberry Court, but his every moment is spent making sure Ronnie is punished for his wrongdoings.
Sarah wants her life to be bigger than remembering to bring goldfish when they meet their friends at the park. The term "friends" is used loosely; Sarah can't take seriously the "perfect" mothers like Mary Ann, who always has the right juice and the right snacks, whose children behave and whose idea of literature is "Good Housekeeping." Sarah wants some intellectual stimulation. Or something.
The "something" turns out to be Todd. She is brazen enough to approach him in a nearly wanton way, and he is awestruck by her energy and disregard for Playground Politics.
They are an unlikely pair: she is not the beauty queen his wife is and he's not the staid paunchy middle-aged businessman her husband is. And yet they find something in each other that draws them to each other, something they cannot find at home. Todd looks at Sarah, really looks at her, and Sarah supports Todd's reticence regarding the bar exam.
Meanwhile, readers find themselves in the home and life of a child molester. These Blueberry Court homestead scenes are intimate and familiar, and introduce the real Ronnie McGorvey. The real man is not the one his mother introduces to his blind date, but the one readers meet on the blind date. That section is heartbreaking, tension-filled, poignant and more than just a little sad and creepy.
Another character who fills the pages (and the reader's minds) is May McGorvey, a woman who knows her son is not quite right but cannot, simply cannot, give up on him. She is the one who insists he fill out a personal ad. She takes him to church. She is not naive, however; she knows a personal computer is a dangerous tool in the hands of her middle age son. Hers is a life of fear mixed with hope and surrounded by caution. She also is a pariah, much like her son, and her life is irrevocably changed by his actions, too.
Action is rife in the book. Characters develop through their actions, more so than their thoughts and feelings. Those who follow up on impulses, who take the first step followed by the second one, fill Perrotta's pages. We watch every step, every swing, every tackle, every departure, every car trip.
Readers are insiders here, and the intimacy haunting and beautiful — and very, very real. We see the lonliness of suburbia, the alienation of personalities, the intimacy (or lack thereof) inside the home and the marriage bed.
As the books careens toward its finale, the reader is nearly breathless with anticipation. It all comes down to one moment, one location, one fateful interaction. In the hands of other writers, the ending would have been a disappointment, but Perrotta's vision makes sense.
The characters are rich and real, full-bodied and immediate. The story is compelling, colorful strings woven into a fascinating fabric. I highly recommend this book.