Knowing the rough plot of a book before reading it can be a real spoiler of the experience — especially if the book you’re reading has been turned into a movie or TV series you’ve watched.
That’s what happened with “The Leftovers” by Tom Perrotta when I read it. I watched the first season of the HBO series and thought it was generally good, but lacking in some places. The novel, however, is a less compelling read than Perrotta’s other work. The characters aren’t all that interesting, and while the plot has some intriguing possibilities, it doesn’t really lead to anything. And perhaps that’s the point. Perrotta looks at those who aren’t part of God’s plan to save certain souls and leave the rest to be damned — according to Christian mythology. Those who are leftover are just that: people struggling to make sense of a big event and how to live their lives in the post-Rapture period.
Perrotta is a sharp writer. He has a good control over the dialogue, can set certain scenes with economy, and create tension when the story calls for it. The trouble is that many of those talents weren’t employed to the degree he could have in this novel. Now, I realize that I’m in the minority regarding this book (after all, it was made into a TV series), but having trouble connecting with a book whose story I do find compelling was a disappointment. I like stories about what happens to humankind after an event either destroys civilization or alters the day-to-day enough to make the characters question and struggle with the meaning of their new-found reality. With “The Leftovers,” it seems all the major characters are trying to find their way through their emotional dread, and only find a sliver of happiness in their memories of the past. Perhaps in a literary sense having the story end on a bit of an ambiguous note works, but it’s clear that for TV it doesn’t. That’s why the HBO series has stitched in a more ominous arc that suggests things are going to get much worse for the characters; that some kind of judgement day is just around the corner. It’s a forced, but understandable move by the producers of the TV show because I’m not sure if people will turn in for dread and ambiguity.
Would I recommend this book? I suppose I would tepidly, but would caution you to avoid watching the HBO series before the reading Perrotta’s novel. Failing to do so means you risk knowing most of the narrative arc and conflicts that carry over from the page to the screen.