The first thing to know about this book is that the title refers not to actual children, but to full-grown people who act in ways that make them no better than children. Greedy, selfish, pouting children. This is a book about rich suburbanites who are profoundly unhappy, and the sometimes stupid things they do to try and change this. It's stark and unforgiving, but also sympathetic. And one hell of a read.
The book deals with a group of people living in a perfectly suburban, affluent neighborhood. The families live the American dream: nice houses, nice children, nice jobs. But they're all wildly unhappy. They all seem to think they have something more coming to them, that they need to be more perfect, or richer, that they don't deserve their problems and why should they have it so hard? In short, they're more child-like than their actual children. They want what they want and will throw a tantrum (or rather, have affairs) when they don't get their way. Like spoiled children, they think they deserve what they want, for no real reason other than they want it.
Though this sounds wildly unpleasant, the characters are sometimes strangely sympathetic. The story focuses mainly on four or five characters and their children: There's Sarah, a sad former-feminist who doesn't seem to quite understand how she ended up a housewife with a daughter she doesn't understand and a husband, Richard, whom she doesn't love. She falls into an affair with Todd, a handsome stay-at-home dad who is married to Kathy, a beautiful professional woman. Sarah and Todd are the more childlike of the group, so dissatisfied with their lives that they try having an affair seemingly just to have something exciting to do. They're surrounded by all the usual people of a small suburban neighborhood--the over-protective soccer moms, the guys who love football, everyone with their little stories and secret miseries. The story of the new neighbor, who happens to be a convicted sexual offender, is particularly affecting.
Reading this book I was equally annoyed and saddened by the characters. They're sometimes infuriating in their childish, selfish ways, but you also get the feeling that there's probably a lot of people out there who feel the same way they do. So the characters all feel very realistic, in a way that feels a little uncomfortable to read sometimes. Perotta doesn't hold back his punches, telling the story in an almost detached, clinical way that just gets to you.
It's not an easy book to read, and the characters might put you off entirely, but it's definitely not a book I'll forget anytime soon. Some scenes just stick with you, and I know I'll look out for more of Perotta's work.