Just as women disappear from Hollywood films once they hit middle age, so characters of both sexes vanish from contemporary fiction when they marry and have kids. It's as if once Bridget Jones lands Darcy and pops out Darcy Jr. there's nothing more to say. At least until they divorce. In the 1950s and '60s, writers like John Cheever and John Updike found a great deal to say -- some of it very juicy indeed -- about the complex interior lives (and sex lives) of married suburbanites. But the cul-de-sac of today is fodder for the psychologist, pediatrician, and conservative radio personality -- not, for the most part, the ambitious novelist.
Happily, an excellent new novel holds a mirror up to the nuclear family circa 2004. What does it reflect? Let's put it this way: This book is not a suitable gift for a baby shower.
Tom Perrotta's Little Children made me laugh so hard I had to put it down. Perrotta nailed high school in ''Election,'' Ivy League high jinks in ''Joe College,'' and has now taken on what Sarah, the restless heroine of his uneven but effervescent new work, calls ''Kidworld.'' A feminist activist in college, Sarah is now married to Richard (a recent convert to the joys of Internet porn), with whom she has a toddler named Lucy. She's not quite sure how she ended up spending her mornings at the playground with a clique of dreary moms. ''I'm a researcher studying the behavior of boring suburban women,'' she tells herself. ''I am not a boring suburban woman myself.''
One day, disgusted by her companions, Sarah marches over to the swing set where Todd, a handsome stay-at-home dad, is pushing his son. She seats Lucy in the adjoining swing and begins a discussion of potty training. Todd's been feeling a little restless himself, and the casual conversation morphs almost immediately into a torrid affair.
Talk about dry tinder. And talk about a precise and witty evocation of the sweet, mind-numbing routines and everyday marital conflicts -- about free time, who goes to work, and what happens in bed -- that leave these characters so prone to mischief. The book encompasses a lame subplot about a paroled sex offender who moves to town, but not even this misstep can detract from Perrotta's gentle, sparkling satire of Kidworld.