Picks and Pans Review: Little Children

updated 03/15/2004 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/15/2004 AT 01:00 AM EST

by Tom Perrotta

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Perrotta's sly sense of suburbia as a place where things can go woefully off-kilter is probably best known from the Reese Witherspoon film of his high school satire Election. His fourth novel gets just as many laughs charting a course through the "whip-cracking fascist glee" of perfect moms—and the playgroups they organize—in a middle-class town. Among the cast are Todd, a former high school jock who would rather play football than study for the bar exam his wife is pushing him to take, Sarah, a less-than-perfect mother who is bored hanging out at the playground with her toddler, and Ronnie, a convicted child molester who may or may not deserve a break from his hostile neighbors. Many characters are frustrated, fearing they have fallen "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."

The cast is so real that book groups will have a blast comparing people they know to the ones in the book. And Perrotta is the rare writer equally gifted at drawing people's emotional maps—Sarah and Todd have a sweet affair—and creating sidesplitting scenes like the one where a group of surly accountants plays a crushing game of football. Suburban comedies don't come any sharper.

NOVEL

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