Little Children and The Abstinence Teacher are two complex, sympathetic works. These are the only two Perrotta books I have read, but it is clear to me that he is a generous author, who is able to detail the complex thought chains lying below each of his characters’ surfaces. This generosity turns symbols into living, breathing people, enabling them to transcend simple, thematic opposition and actually interact with one another. The key point is that he does not treat the opposition as punching bags.
Little Children is the lesser work of the two, if only because the plot seems so apparently stilted next to the personalities of the characters. The inclusion of a child-molester in this story seems to serve no purpose other than to enable some opportunities for Brad to get out of the house (as part of a neighborhood watch group) and to provide some tension near the end of novel. It is too clumsy, given that Perrotta’s skill is so evident in his descriptions of the molester, inspiring both repulsion and pity.
There is one misstep in characterization that occurs on the first page, when the women are introduced – except for our protagonist Sarah – as the mother of so-and-so child. It isn’t symbolism: it is a neon sign that states Sarah is the contrarian of the bunch, a lapsed feminist who longs to be defined by anything other than motherhood. For the most part, the other women, who serve more as the Harpies than a Greek chorus, are not fleshed out. There is one little vignette where the shrew’s (Mary Ann’s) unhappy home life is laid bare, but for the rest of the story they serve to remind Sarah of the destiny awaiting her. No conversation is more meaningful than where the offspring is going to preschool, what toys are being recalled, what TV shows one had watched through heavy-lidded eyes.
That alone would drive one to drink, but Sarah chooses adultery instead. She was and is a mousy girl, who wanted to but couldn’t date the popular jock in high-school or college; she achieves this juvenile ambition by eventually sleep with Brad, a househusband who should be studying for his third attempt at passing the bar exam. The affair has great power within the context of the trapped lives both Sarah and Brad feel they lead. The excitement isn’t so much in the illicit nature of sneaking behind their spouses but rather in the fact that they share a common appreciation of one another. Therein lies the trick in Perrotta humanizing the two; certainly, I felt badly for Richard and Kathy, the spurned spouses. But I felt more sadness than anger in Sarah and Brad finding their escape in each other.
The humanization comes because one can identify with the cause of the affair: the perception that one’s spouse doesn’t fully appreciate him as a partner. It is not a matter of reality; it is that one spouse feels put upon and felt the need to seek that appreciation elsewhere. Brad is the simple case: he is going through his mid-life crisis early. He has failed the bar exam twice, but he states he entered law school on a whim. He watches teenage boys skateboarding and longs to join; instead, he winds up with a bunch of cops and ex-cops in a football league. He is satisfied being a house husband, but of course his wife is expecting him to contribute financially. Her moral support of his attempting the bar exam has crossed from wishing him well into an expectation that he will fail and not pull his financial weight. Sarah’s case is just as simple: her husband isn’t interested in her. She wants to be significant. She is intelligent, but decides that the only way to distinguish herself from the pack of mothers is to flirt with Brad. The two hit it off.
It would have been cheap for Perrotta to distance the reader from Richard and Kathy. Instead, Perrotta turns them into people, each with flaws. Kathy is a harried woman, one reaching the limit of her patience with her husband. Fairly or not, she feels too put upon. She works and so doesn’t spend enough time with her son. Although she is following her dream of directing documentaries, it doesn’t pay well. She has been understanding and a cheerleader for her husband – despite his repeated failure. She is tired. Richard is more difficult to describe; he appreciated Sarah’s intelligence when they first met and now provides financial stability for their family. But in the end, he too is tired and desires something less ordinary.
That is what I like about Perrotta’s writing. Sure, he slings barbs at suburban life, but his characters are people like you or me. Under any number of circumstances, we could be Sarah, Richard, Kathy or Brad. Perrotta’s characters in an understandable manner, despite our disapproval. Recently, I had read Pinker’s The Blank Slate, which helped crystallized some ideas about human emotional and cultural baggage for me. Perrotta’s characters strike me as real because he describes the dissonance between basic desires driving action (i.e. nature) and professed desires (the sum of education, environment, and upbringing) so well.
One scene that illustrates this is when Brad notices that his son flat out ignores him as soon as Mom (Kathy) comes home. That scene bundles the flash of Brad’s jealousy of the bond between son and mother, the fact that the boy and mother essentially enter their own world and exclude him, and the fact that he might be feeling both unmanly (for being a house husband) and his efforts not being recognized by his son or appreciated by his wife. Everything about this scene rings of authenticity. Again, without declaring whether there is validity in the perception (although one will be either sympathetic to Brad or not), the sum of all these minor events build up the case that Perrotta is interested in explaining (and thus looking past one’s view of the adulterers), but not excusing , Brad’s and Sarah’s behaviors.
I would guess the moral of the story is that communication only goes so far. Perhaps that is what love means: that a partner thinks enough of the other person to continue talking. If so, then Perrotta must think the world a loveless place.