Book Review – Little Children by Tom Perrotta

I get frustrated with books like Little Children (St. Martin’s Griffin,2004). Any book that tries to make a comment on the lives of a group of people is bound to get some things right and some things wrong. Little Children is about a neighbourhood of young families. Parents in their late twenties and early thirties whose lives have not turned out the way they expected.

Sarah, daring and feminist in her early twenties, has settled down with her much older husband to be a stay-at-home mom. She’s annoyed by the other moms at the playground and doesn’t seem to feel much affection for her toddler, Lucy. Sarah’s husband, Richard, is quickly developing a more vivid life on-line than with his own family.

Todd, law school graduate who can’t seem to pass the bar, is a stay-at-home dad and enjoys it much more than he ever thought possible. This doesn’t fit well with his wife’s plans though. Kathy is a documentary filmmaker who loves her job but always thought her husband would be the bread-winning lawyer.

Add to that a thirty-something cop, recently retired after the accidental shooting of a teenager, an uptight picture-perfect playground mom who’s already putting pressure on her four-year-old to get into Harvard, and a convicted sex offender who just moved into the neighbourhood. It’s an interesting cast of characters and Perrotta does well at giving each depth and clear motivation by developing their individual histories.

My problem lies in the fact that, although I’m not a parent, I do fall into the same age category as most of the characters. Most of my friends are in this age group too and many of them do have children. While Little Children isn’t unrealistic – I’m sure there are many unhappy couples with young children whose lives have not turned out the way they expected – the novel also doesn’t offer any counterpoint. There are no happy marriages to compare to. There are no engaged parents to say, “Here’s how it could turn out, even though it isn’t turning out that way for our main characters.” When Sarah’s neighbour is introduced, a smart, older lady who loves spending time with Lucy, it seems like she could be a glimpse of a better future, a different possibility. Instead, she quickly devolves into a stereotype, another woman who only seems to complain about her husband.

The book has a certain 90s feminism to it, which might also be a part of my problem. While I’m a fan of both feminism and the 90s, I do find a lot of books writing about women in this generation (the one directly previous to my own) to be hard to sympathize with. So often it seems that the theme of these stories is a woman who settled into suburban life, thinking she could have it both ways and acting out immaturely when she discovers she can’t. Perhaps my generation has watched and learned just how unlikely having it both ways is, because I don’t find that same expectation among my peers. Perhaps my generation is getting used to being over-educated and underemployed in general. Or maybe, this perspective rings a little false because the author is male? Can a man write convincingly of a woman’s internal struggle? Can he know what that conflict between feminism and motherhood/wifehood is really like? I’m not sure of the answer.

That said, I liked the ambiguity of Perrotta’s ending. It isn’t exactly happy but it isn’t sad either and, to me, that makes it the most realistic. It’s slightly contrived, in terms of having several of the main characters show up in the same unlikely spot at the same unlikely time, but it works and it offers a decent closure while still having the open-endedness of real life.

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