Little Children, by Tom Perotta
It took me a long time to get around to reading this book. I kept hearing the title, Little Children, bandied about, and it kept getting great reviews, but it was the title that turned me off. I knew there was a pedophile in the book; that knowledge, combined with the title, convinced me it wasn’t a book I wanted to read. (Writers: scroll down for notes on point of view.)
A friend whose opinion I trust recently assured me, “No, it’s really not about that at all.” So I bought the book, and I quickly realized that the title refers to a passage early in the novel, in which Perotta notes that people grow up, get jobs, get married, go to the playground, and fall in line like little children.
While a pedophile does appear sporadically in the book, the role he plays is that of the town bogeyman. We don’t end up spending a lot of time with him. He is there, instead, to reveal the character of Stonewood Heights–a town full of gossipy soccer moms and dysfunctional dads, where the sudden presence of a convicted sex offender results in all sorts of fear and speculation. Which is not to say that the bad guy is let off easily; he is revealed as a fairly irredeemable character, made no less sympathetic by the town’s feverish outcry against him. This is a novel about the suburbs, about messed-up adult relationships, and about mob mentality. Perotta never forces us to suffer through any of the things you might think he’s going to force you to suffer through, given the press about the book, not to mention the cover copy.
The center of the book is a 30-year-old housewife who can’t really believe she’s a housewife, and a good-looking stay-at-home dad who can’t seem to get his life moving. After the two end up in the sheets, all sorts of bliss and misery ensues.
I recommend Little Children for a fun, engaging, subtly disturbing read.
I also recommend it for any aspiring novelist who is using the third person point of view. Perrotta moves in and out of the minds of many characters in the book, but he does so chapter by chapter; the feeling is less one of omniscience than of a carefully constructed third person that stays very close to the primary characters’ perspectives, one at a time, without the moments of authorial intrusion that characterize the omniscient point of view. I like to think of this technique as the roving third person (as opposed to third person limited, which tends to focus on a single character.) Writing students: If you’re working in third person, try going through this novel chapter by chapter and identifying when the shifts in point of view take place, and how the author handles them.