Archive for the ‘Gloria Steinem Would Burn This Book’ Category

The Leftovers Cover

When a book dissapoints, I’m not shy about airing my grievances.  What is the point of only writing about books I liked?  That excludes an entire part of what it is to be a reader.  If I was just going to post positive reviews, I might as well forego the whole blog thing and just like my favorite books on Facebook.  Sure, I’m exposing myself to all sorts of criticism in return (that I’m an elitist snob or I didn’t understand the book or whatever), but that’s fine by me since disagreement is a hell of a lot more interesting than holding hands and singing Kumbaya because we’re all afraid that any bad reviews will be the final nail in the coffin of the dying act of reading.  Encouraging people to read crappy books isn’t exactly going to help the problem either.

I get extra angsty when disappointing books get good reviews.  A few bloggers I usually rely on for recommendations really liked Tom Perrotta’s The Leftovers.  Both The New York Times and The Washington Post named it a notable book in 2011.  So I was kind of excited when I found a hardcover copy on the bargain table at B&N for six bucks last week (I’ll admit that it’s totally my fault that I ignored past experiences with the bargain table…)

About 50 pages into The Leftovers, I began to despair that Perrotta’s great concept was going to be sadly undermined by less-than-great writing and a ho-hum story.  A novel about the survivors of a rapture-like event had so much potential!  What a great way to explore survivor guilt or the political aftermath of an apocalyptic event. What aspects of society become ridiculous when viewed from the rear view mirror of disaster?  What aspects of our lives are strong enough to transcend the before and after?

There were a few spots when I thought the book lived up to its potential in presenting the weird consequences of a rapture in contemporary society.  I loved the mention of the celebrities who’d disappeared.  Imagine a world in which both JLo and the Pope disappear in the rapture.  What can that mean?  Also loved it when the Christians became stridently anti-rapture after they were left behind.  Too bad there wasn’t more of this larger social commentary.  The more imaginative aspects of the book were pretty much abandoned for a story about the world’s most boring family.

So what was my problem with this book? Both the prose and the characters were flat flat flat. The plot was extremely thin.  It was a depressing book without the artistry to make the emotional drain even slightly enjoyable.  I had hoped for something more imaginative and alive.  I understand that the people and the place are supposed to represent anyone, anywhere in America, but I still wanted them to be interesting.  Never before have cults, adultery, and teenage rebellion felt so thoroughly boring.

Tom and Jill are clearly meant to represent anyone’s children by the normalcy of their lives before the rapture as well as their Dick and Jane names.  Jill is a good girl who rebels after she loses a friend and her mother abandons her family for a sinister cult.  Tom is a college frat boy who joins a hippy-love type cult.  Well, he actually joins two hippy-love type cults, but whatever.  The problem is that they are just as boring after the rapture as they were before.  You would think at least the teenagers would start having some original or interesting thoughts at some point while embarking on a downward spiral, but their aimless rebellion was as uninteresting as their parents’ mid-life crises.

Maybe, in Perrotta’s world, shaving your head, getting stoned, and skipping class is a dramatic event worthy of a post-rapture rebellion?  If that is the case, then we have lived through the apocalypse my friends, because I think most of us would just call that Junior Year.

Also, why must we signify major turmoil and changes in female characters through haircuts?  Is a woman shaving her head or dying her hair blond or letting her hair go grey really meant to symbolize big changes on the inside?  In this book, yes.  In real life, no.  I cut all my hair off once because I was drinking while watching Grease and thought I could make myself look like Rizzo.  Other than learning that I don’t look nearly as hot as Rizzo did with short hair, it was a pretty meaningless exercise in personal grooming.  I could have stood for one symbolic hairstyle in this novel, but not three, which just seems like a really lazy way to write female characters.

While we’re talking about poor effort in female characterization, let’s talk about Christine.  Was she not the most boring pregnant teenage bride of a jailed cult leader that ever was?  No attempt to get inside her head whatsoever, which might have been interesting.  We’re really given no reason why Tom was so drawn to her except that she’s pretty.  Apparently that has something to do with the fact that her face didn’t get fat when she was pregnant.  At least Perrotta remembers to tell us about her hair, which is “gleaming black.”  Anyway, she’s not really a character because we only hear about her from Tom.

Then we have Nora.  The former “top-notch girlfriend” with her perfect “straight and shiny” hair.  She starts dating Kevin (after her whole family vanishes and she very publicly finds out her vanished husband was a sleazy adulterer) and worries that she’s not a good girlfriend anymore because she’s paralyzed with grief. Which, okay, fine.  But the origin of her greatest girlfriend ever thing involves Glamour quizzes and blowjobs.  Basically, Nora is the most superficial sad person ever.  Like three pages on her decision to dye her hair blond superficial.  Here’s one paragraph from that agonizing decision:

Nora read these testimonies[about bad dye jobs] with some trepidation, but not enough to change her mind.  She wasn’t dying her hair for cosmetic purposes, or because she wanted to have more fun.  What she wanted was a clean break with the past, a wholesale change of appearance, and the quickest, surest way to do that was to become an artificial blond.  If her pretty brown hair turned into plastic grass in the process, that was collateral damage she could live with. (310)

Three pages regarding the life-changing dye job.  How am I supposed to care about this person’s grief after reading this?  Then, Kevin doesn’t recognize her standing on his porch because she’s blond.  No, really.  But then she finds a baby his son left on the porch that the teenage bride of the jailed cult leader abandoned and so there’s hope after all?  The end.  Remember when I said the plot was a little thin?

Don’t even get me started on Laurie.  Let me just say that she has let her hair go grey since she joined the cult and that Kevin thinks it makes her look younger.  The most interesting part of the novel was probably the cult that Laurie joins.  This was an aspect of the story that felt like it could have been great… if only this had been a Margaret Atwood novel.  There was just no atmosphere of suspense or dread or horror or anything.  There were a few good details, like the mandatory smoking, but not enough to make it all that memorable.

Then there’s Aimee.  She wears skimpy clothing and her best friend’s dad has the hots for her.  That’s super original.  She also has pretty hair.

She gathered her long hair with both hands as if making a ponytail, but then changed her mind, letting it spill back over her shoulders, soft and pretty against the rough twill of her jacket. (299)

When the female characters in a novel are basically different versions of a L’Oreal Paris ad, you can see how I’m slightly perplexed by all the good reviews.  I think this one got good reviews because the premise is so good that you want to like it.  This could have been an awesome book, but it wasn’t.  If the writing was original and engaging or the plot relatively interesting, I could have overlooked the lame female characters.  (Ahem, I’m looking at you Billy Lynn.)  Sadly, there wasn’t much that could redeem the endless parade of hair models.

I’m not surprised that HBO is developing a series based on The Leftovers.  It’s not the kind of book you’d need to stay true to in a TV adaptation.  There’s nothing particularly memorable about the story or the characters.  It’s not like casting Nora or Aimee or Christine requires more than hiring an actress with shiny hair.  This may be a rare instance in which the adaptation is better than the book. Here’s hoping HBO does really cool stuff with the whole post-rapture premise, keeps a cult or two as part of the story, and writes some female characters with more brains than hair.


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