I started reading The Handmaid’s Tale by Margeret Atwood some time back but gave up in a few pages because of the sense of utter hopelessness that it conveyed. I chose The Leftovers by Tom Perotta after reading a friend’s review with much trepidation because the premise of a global inexplicable catastrophe that it talks about seems filled with potential for despair, much like the Handmaid’s tale. While it was indeed slightly disturbing, it was not of the scale that makes you want to curl up and sob.
What happens when millions of people throughout the world disappear into thin air one day? The disappearance is indiscriminate and is not confined to any particular religion or belief-system, thus it can’t technically be the Biblical “Rapture”. What happens to the people left behind -the leftovers? Do they come to terms with something that cannot be explained? The mass disappearance of loved ones leads to much emotional trauma and confusion, a fertile ground for all kinds of quirky sects and cults. Interestingly, the story revolves around the family of Kevin Garvey, the only family in town that did not lose anyone to the “Rapture” directly. The indirect effect is just as harrowing. Kevin’s wife joins an extremist cult that refuses to let people forget and move on. Kevin’s adolescent daughter is devastated by what she perceives as her mother’s rejection of her over her friend, who disappeared. Kevin’s son joins a cult by a pseudo-godman, who is discovered to be a rapist and bogus. Kevin himself tries to woo another woman who lost her entire family to the Rapture. What becomes of all of them is the plot of the story.
The book, while not racey, is decently paced, with no lags anywhere. The interesting thing about the story is that the focus is entirely on the “left overs” and not the people who disappeared. I had one nagging doubt. When a catastrophe of that scale happens, does not science try to step in to make sense? There is no mention of science at all. The story ends on a mixed note – partly hopeful, partly hopeless, but open in the sense that life goes on as best as it can. A good book to read once.