I’m not sure I’ve encountered a book in recent memory that got me as emotionally involved as The Leftovers. I’ve been done with the book now for over a week, and I’m still sitting with it, trying to decide whether or not I love it or hate it.
I am aware that the book has been made into a series by HBO, a series which actually answers some of the questions not addressed in the novel. However, I’ve only gotten a brief overview of the show from a friend, and so this review is of the book and the book alone.
If there is one statement that encompasses my feeling of the book it is this: The Leftovers steadfastly refuses to be the book I want it to be. Love or hate, I think that statement is the root of my challenge with this book.
The premise of the book is simple. A rapture-like event happens, where some portion of humanity simply disappears one day. The event appears to be random. The story takes place years after the Sudden Disappearance, as it becomes known.
The challenge for me is that when you have a precipitating event like that, I want the story to be about that event. But here, it’s not. In fact, there’s not really an overarching plot line at all. The story generally follows a family as they attempt to go on with their lives, but it is a more Crash-like structure, where the plot lines are only loosely intertwined. The book draws meaning out of the mundane (which it does very well), but there’s no desperate page-turning here, nothing pulling you forward.
The best comparison I can think of is Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves. In that book, the precipitating event is the moon being destroyed, but the event, like in The Leftovers, is never explained. However, the difference is that I felt like Seveneves still circled around the event, dealing with humanity as we struggled to survive the calamity. In The Leftovers, the story feels more like a family drama, just set in a world where this really incredible event happened.
Ultimately, for me as a reader, I alternated between thinking the book was brilliant (which I really think it is in parts), and boring, as there was nothing really pulling my attention to the next page.
This review is already getting long, so I’ll finish with some other pro/cons if you’re interested in the book.
- An amazing ability to cast everyday events in a new light after traumatic events.
- Some of the most compelling writing I’ve ever encountered about how reasonable people could be drawn into cults.
- A realistic depiction of how most people would probably deal with a rapture-like event.
- A realistic depiction of how most people would probably deal with a rapture-like event. (see what I did there?) This was frustrating to me because I wanted people to rise above their limitations, which I don’t really think we see in this book. I wanted at least one character to make a truly heroic choice or decision, but most people were just concerned about appearances and sex.
- No real conclusion. This might be a more personal one, but I really didn’t feel like anyone’s story really wrapped up. There was no overarching plot arc to close, but it even felt like the characters never completed their arcs either.
Overall, I’ll give this a 3/5, because I really do think there are some brilliant moments here.