Sarah doesn’t fit in. She takes her daughter to the playground near her home in an upper-middle class suburb, but she knows she’s different from the other moms there. While they talk about fatigue, sex, and their daily schedules, conversation led by confident super-mom Mary Ann, Sarah feels like she’s dying inside. Then she meets Todd, a stay at home dad nicknamed “the Prom King” by the other women. The two begin an affair more out of desperation than attraction. In their summer fling, the two are momentarily free from the demands and quirks of their spouses, as well as from worrying about the child molester that has just moved into their community.
My description makes this book sound sordid, but really, it isn’t. It’s hard to describe. Perrotta paints a picture of suburban life and the expectations that come with it. I personally find that sort of life – with perfect houses and perfect lawns and perfect exercise routines and always keeping everything together – absolutely terrifying. Sinister and oppressive. And that’s exactly how it feels in this book. I wasn’t sure I was going to connect with it when I started it, but after five pages, Perrotta captured that feeling of underlying wrongness so well that I couldn’t put the book down.
Little Children isn’t about an affair. It’s not about sex, and it’s not about immorality. It’s about desperation, freedom, responsibility, and class and gender expectations. You meet every sort of character you’d expect in a white upper class suburb: the man with the internet sex fetishes, the woman who schedules everything down to the weekly night in bed with her husband, the crazy guy who will go out of his way to try to run the recent neighborhood threat out of the area, the middle-aged guys who try to recapture their youth with violent sports, the retired teachers who get together to discuss classic literature, the old lady who is too poor for the area but has owned her house since before the neighborhood was rich. Every couple has marital problems of varying degrees. Every person has their own issue. No one is as perfect as they pretend to be on the surface.
What I loved about Little Children is that it addressed the subject of oppression in our modern world. It doesn’t seem as if we should be oppressed, with all the conveniences and modern technology we have. And yet, the more we have, the emptier we seem to feel. On the surface, you may look like you have the perfect family and the perfect life, but beneath the surface you are slowly eating away at yourself, plastering on a mask of a smile so that no one sees that you’re drowning. There are couples who can’t connect to each other. Parents who can’t connect with their children. People who can’t connect with anyone around them, so that when the tiniest spark of a connection flares up, they can’t help but be drawn into the flames.
I think everyone knows that feeling of emptiness. Probably everyone has experienced it at one time or another. Maybe it’s the amount of freedoms we have. Maybe it’s our leisure time or our education. Maybe it’s our disconnect from the earth. Maybe it’s our abandonment of religion or faith. Maybe it’s just changing hormones or brain chemistry. There’s all sorts of theories about what causes this hole to open up inside us, but theories don’t change the fact: Many of us feel – or have felt – hollow, aching, and yearning.
This aching oppression was at the heart of Little Children, and it reminded me a lot of The Awakening by Kate Chopin. Of course, The Awakening primarily addressed class and gender expectations for women, while Little Children addresses those expectations in both genders, but still, the similarities were uncanny. The characters spiral further and further out of control in an attempt to repress the feeling of powerlessness in their lives. They want to live, but are subject to a society that tells them they must be automatons. When they break out of the mold – Sarah and Todd’s affair, Sarah’s husband’s internet fetish, Larry’s crazy obsession with the child molester, even the child molester himself – they are crushed by a tidal wave of judgement. Guilt boxes them in. Fear keeps them quiet. Pain snuffs out their little flame.
The book wasn’t perfect. I personally would have preferred more focus on Mary Ann and less on the child molester’s life, simply because I thought Mary Ann’s power-mom lifestyle fit stronger along the themes of the book. But other than that, I loved the book. Unlike with most modern American adult literature, I was not disappointed by pointless sex, vomiting, language/dialogue that didn’t match the characters, or any other grit. The characters were marvelously painted, so real I feel like I know them. There were no happy or tragic endings – just endings. Little Children resonated with me strongly, and I can tell it’s going to stick with me for a long time.