Tom Perrotta’s Little Children makes abundantly clear that the most difficult thing about being a parent isn’t the kids—it’s the other parents. Through a pall of amused melancholy, the novel aims its anger squarely at a children-first culture where parenthood is a badge of moral superiority and adult life is a lockstep procession of righteous conformists “doing exactly what society expected of them. . . all the while pretending that they’d actually made some sort of choice.” Sarah, ex-bisexual and lapsed feminist, now neglectful suburban mother and neglected wife of a Web-porn addict, spends indistinguishable days miming the rituals of middle-class child-rearing, resenting the SUV-driving, Harvard-eyeing über-moms in her social circle, and rationalizing her unmaternal lack of rapport with her three-year-old daughter (“[They] just spent too much time together. Of course they got on each other’s nerves”). With her husband forever clicking on sluttykay.com and her book club tackling Madame Bovary, it’s no wonder that Sarah tumbles into a playground-scandalizing affair with stay-at-home dad Todd, a former quarterback who lives in constant dread of a bar exam he’s already failed twice.
The sterile horrors of the burbs are overdocumented, to say the least, but Perrotta, an expert with precocious youngsters (Election), is never shrill and only slightly vicious in satirizing his infantilized grown-ups. He savages parental hypocrisy with a subplot about a sex offender—who elicits a communal thrill of vigilante fear-mongering—but with its sad, fond fixations on quirk and foible, Little Children is a vastly more compassionate view of prefab malaise than what one of the book’s Stepford moms calls “that thing with Kevin what’s-his-name, you know, with the rose petals.” Perrotta is enough of a hardheaded realist to leave his characters not exactly changed but slowly emerging from the morning-after haze of a painful self-awareness—the sort of mundane epiphany that can make a life of disappointment not just bearable but cherishable.