Fate and Desire at Naptime
This novel has everything: action, lust,
suspense, toilet training …
New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2004. 355 pages.
In the last couple of months I’ve come
across a lot of talk in the middlebrow media about having children
— deciding whether to have them or not, and then coping with
the consequences either way. The March issue of The Atlantic had
feature section about the nanny economy; the cover of Time has
hyped “The Case for Staying Home: Why more young moms are
opting out of the rat race”; a radio talk show has devoted
an hour to advocates for the rights of the “child-free,” who,
it turns out, are shockingly oppressed.
Or shockingly pissy, which
is the view from my side of the fence. I have young children, both
my wife and I work (hey, where’s
our Time cover story?), and I realize how hard and inescapable
these decisions are. And I respect people’s right not to
have a child. But in the mediaverse, these issues get clouded with
a lot of gaseous, solipsistic carrying-on and a relentless upper-middle-class
bias, where each speaker defends his or her domestic strategy as
the most ethical and least tacky.
In the last few weeks, I learned
that a couple I know is contending with the serious illness of
their young daughter—an illness
with no diagnosis or effective treatment so far. They have been
plunged into a Defcon-5 state of round-the-clock care and endless,
bottomless worry. This is one of the fates we invite when we procreate;
so my tolerance toward precious young marrieds pondering child
rearing as a lifestyle choice is especially low right now.
in this mood that I picked up Little Children. Reading the dust
jacket, I saw that the author, Tom Perrotta, is a satirist
of some note (his novel Election was adapted into the feature film
of the same name). This book, I hoped, would slay some sacred cows,
or least knock over some $500 jogging strollers.
It gets off to
a promising start. We meet Sarah, a bright, socially conscious
woman, thrust into marriage and motherhood almost before
she’s realized it. She and her 3-year-old, Lucy, are
part of a tribe of moms and toddlers who gather at the neighborhood
playground every day. The gossip is dreary, the pressure of parental
correctness is heavy, and the conversational focus on diaper bags
and juice boxes is maddening. Perrotta observes the details of
this milieu acutely.
Then the news that a registered sex offender
has moved into town stirs up some rawer emotions in the moms. And
the addition to the
scene of little Aaron and his handsome stay-at-home dad, Todd,
set the pot to simmering quite nicely.
story, however, goes in a different direction than I’d
expected. Little Children is much less directly about parenthood
than it is about love and marriage during the years when one is
occupied (and preoccupied) with caring for young kids. It’s
a wise choice by the author. In rendering the daily life of the
playground tribe so well, the story distills an essential truth:
parenting is tedious. Even I, an experienced parent, was impressed
by the clarity of this revelation. (Maybe it gains some narrative
momentum as the child nears the teenage years, I don’t know
— yet.) Of course parenting has its joys, but they are of
a slow, contemplative, and generic sort. The action is with the
who are struggling to reconcile sexuality with domestic routine,
to get a grip on an awe-filled new identity and relationship to
the world, to conserve a sense of their own freedom in the face
economic and family pressure, to plot a course and stick to it.
The book’s simple two-word title is ironic; the 3-year-olds
are much steadier and more predictable than their moms and dads.
Sarah nervously plots her seduction of Todd, she flashes back to
her first high school boyfriend, who broke up with her on the
morning of the SAT exam:
The doors opened, and Sarah followed the
rest of the sheep inside. But all she could think about as she
filled in the blanks with
her Number 2 pencil was what had gone wrong. Wasn’t I
pretty enough? Was I a bad kisser? Should I have let him touch
there? All of the above?
Here is one of the striking things about
the world of Little Children: none of the characters have really
gotten over high school. All
are still haunted by old fears of inadequacy (especially sexual)
and by the habit of locating themselves and their peers on a monolithic
pecking order, with the cool kids at the top and the outsiders
below. The women at the playground dub Todd “the Prom King,” and
make him the projection screen for their dreams of domestic bliss,
or grievances against their romantic ill-fortune. The men, for
their part, withdraw from their families and responsibilities into
adolescent diversions: sports, cruel practical jokes, pornography.
and Todd find refuge in each other, scheduling trysts to match
their kids’ naptime. But their summer fling can’t
go on indefinitely; the day of reckoning is the date of the bar
exam, which Todd (pressured by his wife) has a third and final
chance to pass.
The humor in Little Children is clever rather
than uproarious, and the prose is merely utilitarian. But it’s
a well-constructed story that gathers speed and surprising tension
as it unfolds.
Will Todd and Sarah ditch their spouses and run off together? What
is the pedophile Ronnie McGorvey doing at the playground after
dark? I was keen to reach the final pages to find out.
pokes fun in every direction, Perrotta also extends sympathy and
understanding all around. Take Mary Ann, who is the uptightest
of the uptight playground moms. She pursues motherhood as project
management, and explains to her 4-year-old the things he needs
to do to get into Harvard. We figure Mary Ann for a walking punchline
in Chapter One, but eventually we see behind the brisk exterior
and glimpse her heartbreak and vulnerability.
Placing the character
of Ronnie the child molester in this suburban farce seems like
an incongruous choice, but it succeeds. Ronnie
represents what can happen at the bottom of the high school totem
pole: the victim of bullying, the total outsider, becomes the bully
and abuser in his turn. The author doesn’t flinch from Ronnie’s
viciousness and manipulations, but gives him agency either to succumb
to his compulsion or to overcome it.
As the moms and dads are buffeted
by their desires, obligations, and regrets, their identity as parents
anchors them. The anchor
may be a dreadful burden. Ronnie’s mother personifies parenthood
in extremis; she loves her son, yet cannot blind herself to what
he is. But the redemptive capacity of parenthood is portrayed as
well, in the young families’ choices to stay together, or
to break up tenderly.