Jim McAllister is a popular teacher at Winwood High School. He takes his job seriously and strives to “do right” by his students. Tracy Flick is an ambitious girl who seemingly does everything she should to get ahead: edit the yearbook, star in plays, serve as class president, and sleep with her English teacher and get him fired. (See how I snuck that one in there?) The very essence of Tracy annoys Mr. McAllister—plus her little affair got his friend and colleague fired. In an effort to stop the force of nature that is Tracy Flick, Mr. McAllister persuades a popular, good-natured (but somewhat dim) jock named Paul Warren to run against Tracy in the upcoming school election—thereby setting in motion a series of events that will lead to Mr. McAllister’s eventual downfall. Against the backdrop of a high school election, Perrotta creates a comedic drama involving sibling rivalry, smear campaigns, sex scandals, adultery, lies and (possible) redemption.
This was the classic case of seeing the movie before the book and having it completely influence your reading experience. I saw the movie Election—starring Reese Witherspoon and Matthew Broderick—back when it came out in 1999. It was next to impossible for me to put the movie aside when reading the book. Also, I apparently blanked out a large part of the movie as I remembered nothing about one of the major subplots involving Paul Warren’s sister Tammy getting involved in the election. The narration jumps around between Mr. McAllister (Mr. M in the book), Paul, Tracy, Tammy and Lisa (the girlfriend of both Paul and Tammy at differing times). It was a fast read, but I didn’t find it as satisfying as other Perrotta books. It felt a bit too slight and insubstantial to me. What it really made me want to do is rewatch the movie. This may be one of the rare cases when the movie is better than the book. Still, it isn’t a bad read, but I think there are better Perrotta books out there if this is your introduction to the author.
Excerpt from Mr. M on Tracy Flick: It’s clear to me now that I was wrong to get so involved in Paul’s candidacy. I don’t think I admitted to myself how badly I wanted to see Tracy lose. That girl was bad news, 110 pounds of the rawest, nakedest ambition I’d ever come in contact with. She smoldered with it, and I’d be a liar if I said I didn’t find her fascinating and a little bit dangerous, especially after what I’d heard about her from Jack Dexter. She was a steamroller, and I guess I wanted to slow her down before she flattened the whole school.
Rating: 3 stars
Where I Got It: Paperback Swap, and to there it will return.
Little Children starts (and ends) on a playground in the suburbs. On the very first page, we meet the bored, discontented, overeducated Sarah:
The young mothers were telling each other how tired they were. This was one of their favorite topics, along with the eating, sleeping and defecating habits of their offspring, the merits of certain local nursery schools, and the difficulty of sticking to an exercise routine. Smiling politely to mask a familiar feeling of desperation, Sarah reminded herself to think like an anthropologist. I’m a researcher studying the behavior of boring suburban women. I’m not a boring suburban woman myself.
As soon as I read this opening paragraph, I knew I was going to love this book. After all, it is set in my world: boring suburbia where I myself am one of the boring suburban women (who tries to break out of this boring world by blogging and writing book reviews like this one). I suspect any stay-at-home mom with a small child has moments of panic and desperation like Sarah. Although you love your children and there are moments of great joy, there are many many moments of brain-numbing boredom, self-doubt and isolation. But back to the plot synopsis…
Sarah’s world detours into a far more interesting (and dangerous) tangent when she impulsively kisses the Prom King (aka Todd, the attractive stay-at-home dad who is the object of lust and curiosity among the playground moms). This leads to an unexpected affair between Sarah and Todd and causes them to question everything they thought was true about themselves, their lives and their marriages.
Unfolding alongside this new and illicit love affair is the arrival of a convicted child molester, Ronnie McGorvey, who moves back home with his mother after his release from jail. Ronnie’s presence doesn’t sit well with the townsfolk, and he and his long-suffering mother become the target of subtle and not-so-subtle attempts to drive him away from the “safe” life that suburbia supposedly offers.
Little Children is a wonderfully rich, deeply satisfying read. It is funny, heart-breaking, suspenseful and utterly believable. Perrotta gets all the little details right, and you get inside the heads of Sarah and Todd, and I found myself simultaneously rooting for them and against them. I thought the ending was just as it should be; anything else would have felt like a cop out. My only real quibble with the book was the subplot with Sarah’s husband Richard, who gets increasingly involved with an online fantasy woman called Slutty Kay. This was the only area that didn’t ring true to me, and I wish Perrotta had taken Richard in another direction. Other than that, I was utterly entranced with this novel. If you want an introduction this gifted author, then I think Little Children is the perfect start and may possibly be his best book.
Sidenote: This book was also made into a movie, but I haven’t seen it. Did anyone see it and read the book? What did you think—is the movie worth it or not?
Excerpt from Todd: He’d told Sarah he didn’t know what had gone wrong, but that wasn’t precisely true. He knew, he’d just never been able to put it into words. Something had happened to him over the past couple of years, something to do with being home with Aaron, sinking into the rhythm of a kid’s day. The little tasks, the small pleasures. The repetition that goes beyond boredom and becomes a kind of peace. You do it long enough, and the adult world starts to drift away. You can’t catch up with it, not even if you try.
Rating: 4.5 stars
Where I Got It: Paperback Swap.