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Topic: Little Children by Tom Perrotta

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ElizabethG avatar
Subject: Little Children by Tom Perrotta
Date Posted: 11/9/2007 6:22 PM ET
Member Since: 9/11/2007
Posts: 399
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I just finished this book, and I loved it. There's a lot of material for discussion here. The biggest question I have for anyone else who has read this book though is the setting. I've lived in New England and I liked how it felt real but could have really been anywhere, USA. But the most compelling thing I found was that it took place in the summer of 2001 and probably ends right before 9/11 - perhaps exactly a week before. It distinctly ends on a Tuesday but I don't think it was September 11 in the book. I got chills when I heard them talking about Gary Condit and Chandra Levy during the first chapter. I'll always remember my summer job as a cashier in 2001, everyone talked about that scandal and how small it seemed in comparison after the terrorist attacks.

The book was published in 2004, so I'm almost certain it was done on purpose (unless he finished writing it before 9/11).

Any thoughts on this?

My copy of the book has these reading group questions. Any ideas on those? I will come back to post about those questions later.





Last Edited on: 11/9/07 6:22 PM ET - Total times edited: 1
ElizabethG avatar
Date Posted: 11/12/2007 9:58 AM ET
Member Since: 9/11/2007
Posts: 399
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Over the weekend I rented this movie. I enjoyed it, even though it was different from the book. My biggest problem was the casting of Kate Winslet as Sarah. She and Jennifer Connelly are both very beautiful women, and though Kathy is supposed to be, Sarah is a bit frumpy - which try as she might Kate Winslet is not. She is a tremendous actress though and I think she deserved her Oscar nomination, as did Jackie Earle Haley. The movie also got a nomination for best adapted screenplay.

Onto the reading group questions:

1. Is Little Children an appropriate or deceptive title for this novel? Can you think of the different ways the phrase is employed within the book? To what characters does it best apply? In the end, is the title simply descriptive, or does it work on multiple levels?

I like the title and I think it does work on several levels. The characters want to be good parents, with varying degrees of success. In addition, Ronnie's presence is an obvious threat to their children's safety. However, the book is mainly about adults, who at times act like children. When I was first finished with the book, I would have said the moniker best applies to Todd. But now I am not so sure. Richard, Larry, Ronnie and MaryAnn all act immaturely for their age, and at times Sarah, Kathy (and her mother) and Jean do too.

2. Which characters do you sympathize most with in the novel, and why? Which characters are the least sympathetic? Do your sympathies shift over course of the novel?

I think Sarah is the most sympathetic character because when I read the first chapter about how she found feminism - it really resonated with me. Although I am straight and didn't spend much time at the Women's Center in college, I have had many moments of clarity and understanding come to me from discovering the feminist world view. I also sympathized with Kathy a lot - which is strange because they are both in direct conflict with each other. But I couldn't pick a side. I felt sorry for both of them and thought they both deserved better.

At first I didn't like Larry or the other football players but I found myself also wishing Larry had a happy ending in the book. He reminds me of a lot of people I know in real life.

3. What does Todd want from Sarah? What does Sarah want from Todd? Are they in love, or simply using each other to escape from bad marriages and/or unhappy lives?

I don't know if they are in love - they've only known each other 2 or 3 months total, which IMHO is not enough time to really know someone. But I don't think they are using each other either. I think they're friends who took advantage of each other, and used their relationship as excuse to not work on their other problems.

Going to answer 4 and 5 together:

4. Very few criminals in our culture are more vilified than pedophiles. What do you make of the portrayal of Ronnie McGorvey? Is he a uniquely evil character in the novel? Or is he more similar to some of the other characters than they'd like to admit? Is he treated fairly by the people in the town?

5. Is Larry justified in his obsession with Ronnie? Are his methods simply unorthodox, or he is a bully who's lost his moral compass? In the end, does he do more harm than good?

I think Ronnie is evil - no question about it. The way he treated Sheila made me sick and the "I'M SORRY MOMMY I DON'T THINK I CAN." gave me chills. But Perrotta's portrayal is realistic in that his evil does not dehumanize him. It's one of those banality of evil stories that I think works better than when you have a villain like Darth Vader.

Is he treated fairly by the town? Yes, I think the parents have every right to be concerned and possibly reconsider zoning laws, mandatory sentencing etc. Is he treated fairly by Larry? I think I'd have to say no. Caution and awareness are one thing, but I think it beings Larry down a notch to see him use an obvious target as his personal punching bag to relieve his own problems.

 6. How are children portrayed in this novel? What do you make of such details as Aaron's jester's hat, Big Bear, and the games Train Wreck and Car Doctor? Do Todd and Sarah have different attitudes toward their children, and toward themselves as parents?

There's a lot to these questions that I haven't thought about but would love to hear other answers. My favorite device in this book was the Big Bear - how with every step Sarah and Todd took in their adultery, the bear give them a horrified look. It was creepy to think about a stuffed animal that way - Sarah and Todd weren't perceiving the bear as looking at them, the narrator told us that the Bear was looking at them. It gave me goose bumps, it works on many levels and I loved it.

7. What role does sports play in the novel? Why is Todd so fascinated with the skateboarders? What need does the football team address in his life?

I think in this book, Todd saw sports as a way to reclaim his childhood and adolescence. (Not going to say "youth," he's barely 30.) I did like the part where Kathy said she understood why he was playing football without protective gear because she knew people like to take risks. She herself said she wanted to one day work in a war zone - something probably a lot riskier.

8. When Sarah and Mary Ann argue about Madame Bovary at the book group, what are they really arguing about? Which one makes the most convincing argument about Emma Bovary, and by extension, about the characters in Little Children?

Obviously they are talking about Sarah's affair with Todd. I don't really think either character was more convincing. It's a matter of opinion and perspective. Little Children is in many ways a Rorschach test and there is no right way to interpret it. I think it's ambiguous, and I like it that way.

Kind of reminds me how The Great Gatsby is considered by some to be the great American novel, but when Anwar Nafasi read it with her class in Iran, they rejected it because of the immorality of the characters in committing adultery. There's no right answer, but the answer a person gives will tell you a lot about them.

Personally I think that Sarah's argument is more convincing, that Madame Bovary was looking for a way out and that showed courage. But Sarah lives centuries after Bovary and one cannot draw a direct comparison. I understand Mary Ann's frustration, but I don't think that makes reading it not worth the time. I think it's good to push your comfort zone with the things you read. You might learn something new, and you might learn something about yourself.

9. How do the characters' pasts influence their behaviors within the novel? Who is trying to escape the past? Who is trying to relive it? Who is simply repeating it?

Each character is three dimensional and real. We understand how the pasts of the characters are influencing their present decisions. Personally I think all the characters are doing all three at once.

10. A critic has suggested that "all the noncriminal [characters] in this story are better off in the end than they were at the start." Is this true? Can you think of any exceptions?

Well, May for one. Is she really better off dead? And Kathy - I think she always knew Todd wouldn't quite fit into her plans the way she hoped, she just has the proof right now, but I don't think that's really any better or worse, just the status quo.

11. Critics have differed a great deal in characterizing the tone of the novel. One called it a "gentle satire," while another claimed that "Perrotta has moved into the suburbs with a wrecking ball." Which critic do you agree with? How do you account for this discrepancy in these descriptions?

I think it was dark comedy and satire. I don't quite think it was a wrecking ball, as I've lived in the suburbs myself my whole life so I don't have any fantasies that it is utopia. I think if a person did, then they might use the "wrecking ball" comparison. I do, love that he referenced American Beauty right in the beginning of the book. I can't decide, however, if he intended to get in a jab at that film or to say "this is where we are starting from." Or perhaps it was ironic, the mothers say that movie was "cute" and yet they are living in that same movie (or a very similar one).

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