The acclaimed novelist displays perfect tonal pitch in this story collection, as nobody explores the darker sides of suburbia with a lighter touch.
Perrotta’s novels have become more thematically ambitious since his popular breakthrough (Little Children, 2004), so his return to short stories might initially seem like a career stopgap, a creative breather before the next big book. All of these stories are stereotypically suburban; in fact, all of them could take place in the same (unnamed) suburb, though maybe it comes with the territory that all suburbs are pretty much the same. The stories that go down easiest are never less than entertaining, while the pricklier ones have an ineffable sadness, an existential despair, that doesn’t necessarily fit the suburban stereotype but which doesn’t lie too far beneath the surface within this incisive, empathic and provocative fiction. Whether the protagonists are high school kids anticipating a richer adulthood or disillusioned adults (often widowed or divorced) who are struggling to find some reason to persevere, the stories illuminate flawed, very human characters without a trace of condescension. In the title story, a young teacher with a pregnant wife and difficult daughter finds temporary respite as chaperone at a middle school dance but returns home with a deeper sense of missed opportunity and loss. There’s another school dance in the concluding “The All-Night Party,” where a divorced woman and the cop who had once given her a ticket share an unlikely flirtation, and she hopes that those heading for college will discover that “the world was about to become much larger and more forgiving, at least for a little while.” Throughout the collection, there is estrangement between neighbors who were formerly friends, between husbands and wives who have suffered betrayals, between kids who don’t know any better and adults who haven’t learned any better.
As deeply satisfying and insidiously disturbing as the author’s longer fiction.