I always say that I don't like fantasy or sci-fi books, and yet I love books that ask 'What if?' and then spin out a believable alternate universe. Tom Perrotta's 'What if?' is a doozy – what if The Rapture happens? And what if, instead of taking just God-fearing Christians, it disappears a seemingly random assortment of Christians, Jews, atheists, agnostics, whatever? What happens to the people who don't make the cut – The Leftovers?
The “Sudden Departure”, as politicians and scientists insist on calling the event, leaves in its wake a confused and anxious populace. Perrotta focuses on the inhabitants of the town of Mapleton as they find ways to deal with this new reality. Frank Garvey, recently elected mayor, is trying to maintain harmony and civility in the town even as his own life is in upheaval. His wife Laurie has joined the wonderfully named Guilty Remnant, who band together in group homes, take vows of silence, wear only white, and silently stare down those who don't share their guilt in order to remind them that God is watching. They also smoke like fiends, following their mantra “We Smoke to Proclaim Our Faith”. His son Tom is in the thrall of cult leader Holy Wayne, who has promised the members of his Healing Hug movement that one of his teen-aged brides will produce the Miracle Child. And his daughter Jill is simply trying to cope with the loss of her mother and the trials of high school.
There is a smattering of humor but a fair share of bleakness in Perrotta's vision of a post-rapture world, but he presents his characters in a way that made me sympathetic to even the looniest among them. His 'what if' world seemed surprisingly believable and engaging, and even managed to leave me with a sense of hope for Kevin and his family, and for Mapleton.