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Little Children (Perrotta)

Little Children
Tom Perrotta, 2005
St. Martin's Press
368 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780312315733

Summary
Tom Perrotta's thirtyish parents of young children are a varied and surprising bunch. There's Todd, the handsome stay-at-home dad dubbed "The Prom King" by the moms at the playground, and his wife, Kathy, a documentary filmmaker envious of the connection Todd has forged with their toddler son. And there's Sarah, a lapsed feminist surprised to find she's become a typical wife in a traditional marriage, and her husband, Richard, who is becoming more and more involved with an internet fantasy life than with his own wife and child. And then there's Mary Ann, who has life all figured out, down to a scheduled roll in the hay with her husband every Tuesday at nine P.M.

They all raise their kids in the kind of quiet suburb where nothing ever seems to happen—until one eventful summer, when a convicted child molester moves back to town, and two parents begin an affair that goes further than either of them could ever have imagined. (From the publisher.)



Author Bio
Birth—August 13, 1961
Where—Summit, New Jersey, USA
Education—B.A., Yale University; M.A., Syracuse University
Awards—Fellowship, Bread Loaf Writer's Conference
Currently—Belmont, Massachusetts

Tom Perrotta is the author of several works of fiction, including Joe College, Election, Little Children and The Leftovers. Both Election and Little Children were adapted to film: Election, in 1999, starred Reese Witherspoon and Matthew Broderick; Little Children, in 2006, starred Kate Winslet and Jennifer Connelly.

Perrotta has taught expository writing at Yale and Harvard University and has been called "one of our true genius satirists" by Mystic River author, Dennis LeHane. Newsweek hailed him as "one of America's best-kept literary secrets...like an American Nick Hornby." Perrotta lives with this wife and two children in Belmont, Massachusetts. (Adapted from the publisher.)

More
That Tom Perrotta struggled into his early 30s to find success should come as no surprise to fans of his work. A Yale grad, Perrotta studied writing under Thomas Berger and Tobias Wolff before moving on to teach creative writing at Yale and Harvard. It was during this period that he began work on the stories that would comprise his first release, Bad Haircut. He had finished two more novels (including Election, which would prove to be his breakthrough book) before Bad Haircut was finally picked up by a publisher in 1994.

It wasn't until a chance introduction with a screenwriter that Perrotta finally moved into the public eye. The result of that encounter was the publication of Election (1998), which was made into the much-beloved film starring Matthew Broderick and Reese Witherspoon. At last, Perrotta was able to call himself a working novelist.

The theme of ordinary people trapped in lives they never imagined runs throughout Perrotta's novels. Success for his characters is always just out of reach, and the world is always just outside of their control. Characters that seem destined for success serve as foils to the true protagonists, constant reminders of the unfairness of life.

Which is not to say that Perrotta's novels are depressing. On the contrary, his razor-sharp observations of the human condition are often side-splittingly funny, and the compassion he exhibits in his writing makes even the most ostensibly unlikable characters sympathetic. Perotta does not create caricatures; his novels work because he has a basic understanding that life is complex, and everyone has a story if you take the time to listen.

Extras
When asked in a 2004 Barnes & Noble interview what book most influenced his career as a writer, here's his response:

I read The Great Gatsby in high school and was hypnotized by the beauty of the sentences and moved by the story about the irrevocability of lost love. I've reread it several times since then and have discovered lots of other layers—Nick's idolization of Gatsby, the perverse Horatio Alger narrative of Gatsby's rise in the world, Fitzgerald's keen eye for the hard realities of social class in America—and I still maintain that even if there's no such thing as a perfect novel, Gatsby's about as close as we're going to get.

(Author bio and interview from Barnes & Noble.)



Book Reviews
This soccer-mom Bovary, like the original, grasps the fundamental sadness of characters trapped in middle-class stability and yearning for adventures gone by. But Mr. Perrotta is too generous a writer to trivialize that. What distinguishes Little Children from run-of-the-mill suburban satire is its knowing blend of slyness and compassion.
Janet Maslin - New York Times


Little Children, like all Perrotta's work, is a virtuoso set of overlapping character studies, the sort of book where both a remorseless Stepford mom and an accused child molester can inspire pity and show themselves more than capable of their own sorts of compassion.... Tom Perrotta is, indeed, all grown up now, and Little Children, is a greatly auspicious and instructive encounter with the dread world of maturity.
Chris Lehmann - Washington Post


The eponymous children in this satirical novel are actually adults who, chafing at the burdens of parenthood, try to re-create their unencumbered youth. Sarah, an overeducated young homemaker, likens her tantrum-prone daughter to a “brooding Russian epileptic” out of Dostoevsky, and pines for lost college days of feminism and bisexuality. While her husband orders used panties online, she has furtive sex with a stay-at-home dad whose repeated failure to pass the bar has earned him the contempt of his gorgeous wife. The humor is sometimes cruel, but Perrotta never betrays the complexity of his characters. For all Sarah’s sins—neglecting her child, wallowing in romantic delusions—there’s something almost brave about her refusal to join the supermoms drilling their toddlers with dreams of Harvard, and about her yearning for more than “a painfully ordinary life."
The New Yorker


The characters in this intelligent, absorbing tale of suburban angst are constrained and defined by their relationship to children. 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. In the midst of this universe of mild to fulminating family dysfunction, Sarah and Todd drift into an affair that recaptures the passion of adolescence, that fleeting liminal period of freedom and possibility between the dutiful rigidities of childhood and parenthood. Perrotta (Election; Joe College; etc.) views his characters with a funny, acute and sympathetic eye, using the well-observed antics of preschoolers as a telling backdrop to their parents' botched transitions into adulthood. Once again, he proves himself an expert at exploring the roiling psychological depths beneath the placid surface of suburbia.
Publishers Weekly


Perrotta moves away from his lighthearted, humorous tales of New Jersey (Joe College; Election) with his latest novel, a penetrating and absorbing portrait of three suburban couples and their failed marriages. There's Sarah, who was a bisexual feminist in college but has now married Richard, 20 years her senior, to escape a dead-end job; Todd, a handsome, stay-at-home dad who can't bring himself to care about repeatedly failing the bar exam; and Larry, a former cop who retired at 33 after mistakenly killing a 13-year-old boy. All of their lives collide with unexpected consequences the summer a convicted child molester moves into the neighborhood. Sarah and Todd have an extended affair, and Larry becomes obsessed with harassing the sex offender, while Richard turns into a devoted member of the online "Slutty Kay" fan club. Perrotta's poignant and unflinching prose skillfully evokes both sympathy for his characters and disdain for the convenience they have chosen. Highly recommended.— Karen T. Bilton, Somerset Cty. Lib., Bridgewater, NJ.
Library Journal


Several unstable marriages and a convicted pedophile's presence in a quiet suburban community ignite a complex, fast-moving plot. Darker than such sprightly entertainments as Joe College (2000) and The Wishbones (1997), Perrotta's fourth is an anatomy of marital and familial discord focused on four variously conjoined and separated couples. Sarah Pierce instantly falls for handsome househusband Todd, dubbed "the Prom King" by her fellow moms, who furtively ogle him at the playground where they all bring their kids. Sarah soon wants freedom from her (much older) husband Richard, a product consultant helplessly fixated on an Internet porn queen. Tod's wife Kathy, a hardworking documentary filmmaker, gradually loses patience with his failures to pass his bar exam. As Sarah and Todd begin a heady affair, ex-con sexual predator Ronnie McGorvey comes to live among them all with his widowed mother (and only companion) May, provoking neighborhood protests and stoking the already smoldering rage of Todd's touch-football league teammate Larry Moon, separated from his family and "retired" from the police department after he shot to death a black teenager brandishing a toy pistol. All these lit fuses eventually spark the superb extended climax, capped by a touching and deeply ironic resolution scene, which occurs at the same playground where its actions began. Savvy dialogue and interior monologue, characters so real you know you have relatives and neighbors exactly like them, and Perrotta's unerring grasp of the cultures of marriage and young parenthood pull the reader smoothly through a flexible narrative filled with little shocks of surprise and stunning set pieces (Kathy's awkward dinner party for Todd's "friends" Sarah and Richard, and his team's epic slugfest vs. a superior opponent are particular standouts). And the juxtapositions whereby Perrotta charts his several characters' interconnected misadventures are handled with masterly authority. An accomplished comic novelist extends his range brilliantly. Perrotta's best.
Kirkus Reviews



Discussion Questions
Use our LitLovers Book Club Resources; they can help with discussions for any book:

How to Discuss a Book (helpful discussion tips)
Generic Discussion Questions—Fiction and Nonfiction
Read-Think-Talk (a guided reading chart)

Also consider these LitLovers talking points to help get a discussion started for Little Children:

1. Is Little Children an appropriate or deceptive title for this novel? Can you think of the different ways the phrase is employed within the book? To what characters does it best apply? In the end, is the title simply descriptive, or does it work on multiple levels?

2. Which characters do you sympathize most with in the novel, and why? Which characters are the least sympathetic? Do your sympathies shift over course of the novel?

3. What does Todd want from Sarah? What does Sarah want from Todd? Are they in love, or simply using each other to escape from bad marriages and/or unhappy lives?

4. Very few criminals in our culture are more vilified than pedophiles. What do you make of the portrayal of Ronnie McGorvey? Is he a uniquely evil character in the novel? Or is he more similar to some of the other characters than they'd like to admit? Is he treated fairly by the people in the town?

5. Is Larry justified in his obsession with Ronnie? Are his methods simply unorthodox, or he is a bully who's lost his moral compass? In the end, does he do more harm than good?

6. How are children portrayed in this novel? What do you make of such details as Aaron's jester's hat, Big Bear, and the games Train Wreck and Car Doctor? Do Todd and Sarah have different attitudes toward their children, and toward themselves as parents?

7. What role does sports play in the novel? Why is Todd so fascinated with the skateboarders? What need does the football team address in his life?

8. When Sarah and Mary Ann argue about Madame Bovary at the book group, what are they really arguing about? Which one makes the most convincing argument about Emma Bovary, and by extension, about the characters in Little Children?

9. How do the characters' pasts influence their behaviors within the novel? Who is trying to escape the past? Who is trying to relive it? Who is simply repeating it?

10. A critic has suggested that "all the noncriminal [characters] in this story are better off in the end than they were at the start." Is this true? Can you think of any exceptions?

11. Critics have differed a great deal in characterizing the tone of the novel. One called it a "gentle satire," while another claimed that "Perrotta has moved into the suburbs with a wrecking ball." Which critic do you agree with? How do you account for this discrepancy in these descriptions?
(Questions issued by the publisher.)

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