Little Children

by Tom Perrotta

Paperback, 355 pages, St Martins Pr, List Price: $13.95 | purchase

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Little Children
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Tom Perrotta

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Book Summary

A group of young suburban parents, including a stay-at-home dad, a former feminist, and an obssessive-compulsive mom, finds its sleepy existence shattered when a convicted child molester moves back into town and two of the parents have an affair.

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Excerpt: Little Children

Little Children


St. Martin's Griffin

Copyright © 2005 Tom Perrotta
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780312315733

Chapter One

BAD MOMMY

THE YOUNG MOTHERS WERE TELLING EACH OTHER HOW TIREDthey were. This was one of their favorite topics, along with theeating, sleeping, and defecating habits of their offspring, the meritsof certain local nursery schools, and the difficulty of sticking to anexercise routine. Smiling politely to mask a familiar feeling of desperation,Sarah reminded herself to think like an anthropologist. I'ma researcher studying the behavior of boring suburban women. I am nota boring suburban woman myself.

"Jerry and I started watching that Jim Carrey movie the othernight?"

This was Cheryl, mother of Christian, a husky three-and-a-half-year-oldwho swaggered around the playground like a Mafia chieftain,shooting the younger children with any object that couldplausibly stand in as a gun-a straw, a half-eaten banana, even aBarbie doll that had been abandoned in the sandbox. Sarah despisedthe boy and found it hard to look his mother in the eye.

"The Pet Guy?" inquired Mary Ann, mother of Troy and Isabelle."I don't get it. Since when did passing gas become so hilarious?"

Only since there was human life on earth, Sarah thought, wishingshe had the guts to say it out loud. Mary Ann was one of thosedepressing supermoms, a tiny, elaborately made-up woman whodressed in spandex workout clothes, drove an SUV the size of a UPSvan, and listened to conservative talk radio all day. No matter howmany hints Sarah dropped to the contrary, Mary Ann refused tobelieve that any of the other mothers thought any less of RushLimbaugh or any more of Hillary Clinton than she did. Every daySarah came to the playground determined to set her straight, andevery day she chickened out.

"Not the Pet Guy," Cheryl said. "The state trooper with the splitpersonality."

Me, Myself, and Irene, Sarah thought impatiently. By the FarrellyBrothers. Why was it that the other mothers could never rememberthe titles of anything, not even movies they'd actually seen, whileshe herself retained lots of useless information about movies shewouldn't even dream of watching while imprisoned on an airplane,not that she ever got to fly anywhere?

"Oh, I saw that," said Theresa, mother of Courtney. A big,raspy-voiced woman who often alluded to having drunk too muchwine the night before, Theresa was Sarah's favorite of the group.Sometimes, if no one else was around, the two of them would sneaka cigarette, trading puffs like teenagers and making subversive commentsabout their husbands and children. When the others arrived,though, Theresa immediately turned into one of them. "I thoughtit was cute."

Of course you did, Sarah thought. There was no higher praise atthe playground than cute. It meant harmless. Easily absorbed. Posingno threat to smug suburbanites. At her old playground, someonehad actually used the c-word to describe American Beauty (not thatshe'd actually named the film; it was that thing with Kevin what's-his-name,you know, with the rose petals). That had been the last strawfor Sarah. After exploring her options for a few days, she hadswitched to the Rayburn School playground, only to find that it wasthe same wherever you went. All the young mothers were tired. Theyall watched cute movies whose titles they couldn't remember.

"I was enjoying it," Cheryl said. "But fifteen minutes later,Jimmy and I were both fast asleep."

"You think that's bad?" Theresa laughed. "Mike and I werehaving sex the other night, and I drifted off right in the middle ofit."

"Oh, well." Cheryl chuckled sympathetically. "It happens." "I guess," said Theresa. "But when I woke up and apologized,Mike said he hadn't even noticed."

"You know what you should do?" Mary Ann suggested. "Setaside a specific block of time for making love. That's what Lewisand I do. Every Tuesday night at nine."

Whether you want to or not, Sarah thought, her eyes straying overto the play structure. Her daughter was standing near the top of theslide, sucking on the back of her hand as Christian pummeled Troyand Courtney showed Isabelle her Little Mermaid underpants. Evenat the playground, Lucy didn't interact much with the other kids.She preferred to hang back, observing the action, as if trying tolocate a seam that would permit her to enter the social world. A lotlike her mother, Sarah thought, feeling both sorry for her daughterand perversely proud of their connection.

"What about you?" It took Sarah a moment to realize thatCheryl was talking to her.

"Me?" A surprisingly bitter laugh escaped from her mouth."Richard and I haven't touched each other for months."

The other mothers traded uncomfortable looks, and Sarah realizedthat she must have misunderstood. Theresa reached across thepicnic table and patted her hand.

"She didn't mean that, honey. She was just asking if you wereas tired as the rest of us."

"Oh," said Sarah, wondering why she always had so much troublefollowing the thread of a conversation. "I doubt it. I've neverneeded very much sleep."

Morning snack time was ten-thirty on the dot, a regimen establishedand maintained by Mary Ann, who believed that rigid adherence toa timetable was the key to effective parenting. She had placed glow-in-the-darkdigital clocks in her children's rooms, and had instructedthem not to leave their beds in the morning until the first numberhad changed to seven. She also bragged of strictly enforcing a 7 P.M.bedtime with no resistance from the kids, a claim that filled Sarahwith both envy and suspicion. She had never identified with authorityfigures, and couldn't help sensing a sort of whip-crackingfascist glee behind Mary Ann's ability to make the trains run ontime.

Still, as skeptical as she was of fanatical punctuality in general,Sarah had to admit that the kids seemed to find it reassuring. Noneof them complained about waiting or being hungry, and they neverasked what time it was. They just went about the business of theirmorning play, confident that they'd be notified when the propermoment arrived. Lucy seemed especially grateful for this small giftof predictability in her life. Sarah could see the pleasure in her eyeswhen she came running over to the picnic table with the others,part of the pack for the first time all day.

"Mommy, Mommy!" she cried. "Snack time!"

Of course, no system is foolproof, Sarah thought, rummagingthrough the diaper bag for the rice cakes she could have sworn she'dpacked before they left the house. But maybe that was yesterday? Itwasn't that easy to tell one weekday from the next anymore; theyall just melted together like a bag of crayons left out in the sun.

"Mommy?" An anxious note seeped into Lucy's voice. All theother kids had opened Ziploc bags and single-serving Tupperwarecontainers, and were busy shoveling handfuls of Cheerios and Goldfishcrackers into their mouths. "Where my snack?"

"I'm sure it's in here somewhere," Sarah told her.

Long after she had come to the conclusion that the rice cakesweren't there, Sarah kept digging through the diaper bag, pretendingto search for them. It was a lot easier to keep staring into that darkjumble of objects than to look up and tell Lucy the truth. In thebackground she heard someone slurping the dregs of a juice box.

"Where it went?" the hard little voice demanded. "Where mysnack?"

It took an act of will for Sarah to look up and meet her daughter'seyes.

"Im sorry, honey." She let out a long, defeated sigh. "Mommy can't find it."

Lucy didn't argue. She just scrunched up her pale face, clenchedher fists, and began to hyperventilate, gathering strength for the nextphase of the operation. Sarah turned apologetically to the othermothers, who were watching the proceedings with interest.

"I forgot the rice cakes," Sarah explained. "I must have left themon the counter."

"Poor thing," said Cheryl.

"That's the second time this week," Mary Ann pointed out.

You hateful bitch, Sarah thought.

"It's hard to keep track of everything," observed Theresa, whohad supplied Courtney with a tube of Go-gurt and a box of raisins.

Sarah turned to Lucy, who was emitting a series of whimpersthat were slowly increasing in volume.

"Just calm down," Sarah pleaded.

"No!" Lucy shouted. "No calm down!"

"That'll be enough of that, young lady."

"Bad mommy! I want snack!"

"It's not here," Sarah said, handing her daughter the diaper bag."See for yourself."

Fixing her mother with an evil glare, Lucy promptly turned thebag upside down, releasing a cascade of Pampers, baby wipes, loosechange, balled-up Kleenex, books, and toys onto the wood-chip-coveredground.

"Sweetie." Sarah spoke calmly, pointing at the mess. "Clean thatup, please."

"I ... want ... my ... snack!" Lucy gasped.

With that, the dam broke, and she burst into piteous tears, adesolate animal wailing that even made the other kids turn and look,as if realizing they were in the presence of a virtuoso and might beable to pick up a few pointers.

"Poor thing," Cheryl said again.

Other mothers know what to do at moments like this, Sarah thought.They'd all read the same book or something. Were you supposed toignore a tantrum and let the kid "cry herself out"? Or were yousupposed to pick her up and remind her that she was safe and wellloved? It seemed to Sarah that she'd heard both recommendationsat one time or another. In any case, she knew that a good parentwould take some sort of clearheaded action. A good parent wouldn'tjust stand there feeling clueless and guilty while her child howled atthe sky.

"Wait." It was Mary Ann who spoke, her voice radiating suchundeniable adult authority that Lucy immediately broke off crying,willing to hear her out. "Troy, honey? Give Lucy your Goldfish."

Troy was understandably offended by this suggestion. "No," he said, turning so that his body formed a barrier betweenLucy and his snack.

"Troy Jonathan." Mary Ann held out her hand. "Give me thoseGoldfish."

"But Mama," he whimpered. "It's mine."

"No backtalk. You can share with your sister."

Reluctantly, but without another word of protest, Troy surrenderedthe bag. Mary Ann immediately bestowed it upon Lucy, whoseface broke into a slightly hysterical smile.

"Thank you," Sarah told Mary Ann. "You're a lifesaver."

"It's nothing," Mary Ann replied. "I just hate to see her sufferlike that."

Not that they would, but if any of the other mothers had askedhow it was that Sarah, of all people, had ended up married, livingin the suburbs, and caring full-time for a small child, she would haveblamed it all on a moment of weakness. At least that was how shedescribed it to herself, though the explanation always seemed a bitthreadbare. After all, what was adult life but one moment of weaknesspiled on top of another? Most people just fell in line like obedientlittle children, doing exactly what society expected of them atany given moment, all the while pretending that they'd actuallymade some sort of choice.

But the thing was, Sarah considered herself an exception. Shehad discovered feminism her sophomore year in college-this wasback in the early nineties, when a lot of undergraduate women weremoving in the opposite direction-and the encounter had left herprofoundly transformed. After just a few weeks of Intro to Women'sStudies, Sarah felt like she'd been given the key to understanding somany things that were wrong with her life-her mother's persistentdepression, her own difficulty making and keeping female friends,the alienation she sometimes felt from her own body. Sarah embracedCritical Gender Studies with the fervor of a convert, takingfrom it the kind of comfort other women in her dorm seemed toderive from shopping or step aerobics.

She enlisted at the Women's Center and spent the second halfof her college career in the thick of a purposeful, socially aware,politically active community of women. She volunteered at the RapeCrisis Hotline, marched in Take Back the Night rallies, learned todistinguish between French and Anglo-American feminism(s). By senioryear, she had cut her hair short, stopped shaving her legs, andbegun attending Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual dances and social events.Two months before graduation, she dove headlong into a passionateaffair with a Korean-American woman named Amelia, who washeaded for med school in New York City in the fall. It was a thrillingtime for Sarah, the perfect culmination to her undergraduate voyageof self-discovery.

And then-suddenly and with astonishing finality-college wasover. Amelia moved back to Westchester to spend the summer withher family. Sarah stayed in Boston, taking a job at Starbucks to paythe rent while she figured out what to do next. They visited eachother twice that summer, but for some reason couldn't recapturewhat had so recently been an effortless rhythm of togetherness. Onthe day before Sarah was supposed to visit her in her new dorm,Amelia called and said maybe it would be best if they didn't seeeach other anymore. Medical school was overwhelming; she didn'thave the space in her life for a relationship.

Sarah had nothing in her life but space, but she didn't get involvedwith anyone else for almost a year, and when she did it waswith a man, a charismatic barista who did stand-up comedy and saidhe liked everything about her but her hairy legs. So Sarah startedshaving again, got fitted for a diaphragm, and spent a lot of time incomedy clubs, listening to tired jokes about the difference betweenmen (they won't ask for directions!) and women (they want to talkafter sex!). When she tried to explain her objections to humor basedon sexist stereotypes, Ryan suggested that she extract the metal rodfrom her ass and lighten up a little.

Along with dumping Ryan, applying to graduate school seemedlike the perfect solution for escaping the rut she was in-a way torecapture the excitement of college while also making a transitioninto a recognizable version of adulthood. She cultivated an image ofherself as a young professor, a feminist film critic, perhaps. Shewould be a mentor and an inspiration to girls like herself, the quietones who'd sleepwalked their way through high school, knowingnothing except that they couldn't possibly be happy with any of thechoices the world seemed to be offering them.

Within a couple of weeks of starting the Ph.D. program,though, she discovered that she'd booked passage on a sinking ship.There aren't any jobs, the other students informed her; the profession'sglutted with tenured old men who won't step aside for thenext generation.

Continues...