(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

As the author of Election (1998) and Joe College (2000), Tom Perrotta has distinguished himself as a literary satirist, offering savage examinations of American life. In Election, his focus was on high school overachievers and adolescent duplicity; in Joe College, he skewered the typical young-man-coming-of-age tale. In Little Children, Perrotta focuses his sights on suburban American home life.

Little Children particularly examines the lives of young parents who are finally and irreversibly entrenched in the day-to-day tedium of middle-class family life. Perrotta does not so much shed a light on the American Dream, such as it is, as he places under the microscope the expectations middle-class Americans either have foisted on them or impose upon themselves. Americans, Perrotta argues in Little Children, are not happy with health and respectable standards of living. Additionally, they all have to live out perfect dreams of realized ambitions, self-fulfillment, family togetherness, and community status.

Initially the reader is introduced to Sarah. Despite a passionate love affair with another woman during her undergraduate years, a major in women's studies, and a good deal of time in graduate school working on a Ph.D., she now finds herself a more or less typical American housewife with an older, self-absorbed husband, Richard, and a three-year-old toddler, Lucy. Sarah believes that “most people just fell in line like obedient little children, doing exactly what society expected of them at any given moment, all the while pretending that they’d actually made some sort of choice.” Sarah spends most of her mornings at the playground with a group of banal young mothers whom she more or less loathes. The group is led by the aggressive and domineering Mary Ann, who not only keeps her children on a strict schedule for naps and snacks but even has her sex life scripted out in advance, penciling the act in for one night a week.

The dichotomies in Sarah's life are reflected by the reading material she packs in her diaper bag: Margaret Atwood's feminist dystopia The Handmaid's Tale (1985) rests next to the children's bookThe Berenstain Bears Visit the Dentist. She feels reduced to reminding herself, over and over, “I am a painfully ordinary person …destined to live a painfully ordinary life.”

The novel's narrative abruptly changes focus, moving from Sarah to the good-looking househusband Todd, whom the playground mothers call “the prom king.” A former athlete and graduate of law school, Todd is following his wife's plan to the letter. He will keep his three-year-old, Aaron, at home while his wife, Kathy, makes documentary films and Todd studies for the bar exam. When he passes the bar, their roles will change, and he will become a well-paid attorney, while she stays home with their son. The only problem is that Todd has already failed the bar twice and cannot work up the energy to throw himself into his studies for his third attempt.

Like Sarah, Todd and Kathy are shackled in their attempts either to hold onto their visions of who they perceive themselves to be or blindly to pursue the ambitious plans carefully laid in place before having a family. Each night when Todd finally makes his way to the library to study after his wife returns home, he first pauses to watch a group of teenage boys attempting skateboard stunts. The boys’ willingness to defy the laws of gravity and risk life and limb above unforgiving concrete merely to show off, all caution tossed to the wind, appeals to Todd. A former football star in school, as well as a fraternity boy, Todd's life has lost all its recklessness and has been carefully plotted out by his resentful wife. Two things soon occur that will shock Todd out of his suburban doldrums, however. A neighbor, Larry Moon, invites him to play tackle football in an unofficial league, and one day at the playground, Sarah is dared to go speak to Todd. She takes the dare a step further, and they kiss. Before long, an affair between the two has begun in earnest.

One of Perrotta's points in this...

(The entire section is 1691 words.)