Tom Perrotta imagines a world in which millions of people have suddenly vanished without a trace. Like puffs of smoke on the wind, they have "Suddenly Departed." This rapture-like event, however, does not seem to have had a religious component, although some of those who are left behind, the "Leftovers," try to impose one on it. The people who disappeared were of every possible religious faith or lack of faith and seemingly every possible state of morality and from every corner of the earth. As time passes - three years at the telling of this story - there is still no explanation for the disappearances and no solution to the mystery of where they have gone. The Leftovers must deal with this disruption as best they can and try to cope and carry on.
We experience the Sudden Departure through events in the small town of Mapleton and through the Garvey family - Kevin, Laurie and their two teenage children, Tom and Jill. No one from the Garvey family disappeared in the SD, but Jill was an eyewitness as a friend who she was with at the time did disappear. In the aftermath of the event, though, the Garvey family is falling apart.
Tom has dropped out of college and become involved in a cult called the Healing Hug movement, led by a guru called Holy Wayne, whom the writer describes as "that age-old scoundrel, the Horny Man of God." It turns out to be an apt description. Later when Tom becomes disillusioned with Holy Wayne, he falls in with another cult called the Barefoot People. Like many Leftovers torn loose from their moorings, he drifts, without purpose.
Jill, once an A-student with a bright future, loses interest in school and, with her friend Aimee, spends every night partying. But what caused Jill to lose her way was not really the SD itself but what happened to her mother afterward. Laurie has abandoned her family and joined yet another cult, the Guilty Remnant, whose members seek martyrdom and who take a vow of silence, wear white, and must brandish lighted cigarettes every time they appear in public. Their mantra is "We smoke to proclaim our faith," and one of their main jobs is to watch (i.e., stalk) nonmembers and garner new devotees for the cult while they await the end of the world.
Kevin, meanwhile, has gone into politics as a member of the Hopeful Party and has been elected mayor of Mapleton. He is trying his best to return to a normal life with Jill, the one member of his family left to him. He becomes interested in a woman, Nora Durst, who lost all of her family - a husband and two children - in the Sudden Departure and he tries to jump start a romantic relationship with her, but she is so lost and depressed that she is unable to respond.
Perrotta is very good at using the situation that he has set up to explore the stress points between religion and secular American life. One of his characters who is both sad and funny in an ironic way is the Rev. Matt Jamison, an Evangelical Christian type who is appalled that he "missed the cut" and was not taken in the SD. Moreover, he insists that this could not have been the real rapture, else he would have been taken! To prove his point, he goes on an utterly mean-spirited campaign of exposing the moral failings of those who were taken by publishing a hateful newsletter with all the scurrilous details of their shortcomings.
In the ongoing trauma of the aftermath of the Sudden Departure, it seems that everyone in Perrotta's suburban world is drifting into one form or another of cultic extremism as a way of dealing with their pain and confusion. The breakdown of reason as depicted here seems very believable. In fact, it seems a metaphor for American society post 9/11 when fear and extremism have in many ways come to rule our social and political lives.
All of this sounds very dark, I know, and it is, but there are light moments in the book as well and it ends on a (perhaps) hopeful note as symbolized by a newborn baby. Maybe she will be the miracle child for whom the world is waiting, one who will usher in a new age of peace and happiness. At a minimum, perhaps she will heal one lost and lonely woman and give her a reason for living.
Though we never learn what happened to the Departed, maybe the message is that, although we all suffer loss in our lives, we Leftovers must carry on, treasuring our lives even more because of what we have lost.