Tom Perrotta zeroes in on liberal pieties, a sure way to spice up the fun he has with our current cultural obsessions.
Mrs. Fletcher by Tom Perrotta. Scribner, 307 pages, $26.
By Ed Meek
A late summer read that pushes some political buttons and makes us laugh.
Tom Perrotta, who lives in Belmont, MA, is one of a select group of successful American novelists and screenwriters. Dennis Lehane is the other local writer who has made a spectacularly popular name for himself. Whereas Lehane’s work is dark and edgy and focuses on crime, Perrotta is a satirist who likes to make his readers a little uncomfortable by having his characters engage in behavior that flies in the face of political correctness. In one famous story, “The Smile on Happy Chang’s Face,” a father who is having trouble dealing with his son’s gayness slaps his child in the face and breaks his nose. But then Perrotta goes on to create sympathy for the protagonist; when his wife divorces him, he is shunned, feeling deep remorse for his act of violence. Because Perrotta zeroes in on liberal pieties in his writing, he is able to spice up the fun he has with our current cultural obsessions. At the same time, Perrotta is an accomplished writer who knows how to construct a plot and how to withhold information so that we keep turning the pages. Finally, he can write with fluidity from a number of different points of view, male and female. As a grad student at Syracuse, Perrotta worked with the celebrated Tobias Wolf, who is also adept at all those facets of fiction (Our Story Begins, This Boy’s Life, etc.) and Perrotta appears to have learned quite a lot from his teacher.
As the title suggests, the main character in Mrs. Fletcher is Eve Fletcher, a 46-year-old recently divorced woman who runs a senior center. The novel shifts between third person narrative from her point of view and first person commentary from the perspective of her son Brendan. Brendan is a “bro” who is starting college at a local university. The set-up enables Perrotta to take on a couple of hot topics: an older single woman looking for love and self-affirmation as well as an exploration of the shifting sexual mores and identity roles in the current college scene.
Because her son is going off to school, Eve decides to expand her horizons. She takes a class at a local community college in gender studies taught by a former male basketball star who has transitioned into a woman. When Eve receives a mysterious text calling her a MILF, she begins exploring porn and becomes obsessed with amateur lesbian encounters. Meanwhile, Brendan ditches his high school cheerleader girlfriend for a beautiful female softball player (with swimmers’ shoulders) who is running a college club in support of autism sensitivity. She and Brendan have very different ideas about sexual roles in a relationship.
When Brendan first gets to college he meets with an insipid advisor who reminds him that “No means no.” (I initially thought Perrotta might venture into the issue of rape on college campuses — a female victim might drag a mattress around school as performance art — but he stays away from that touchy subject.) There are points in the novel when the characters come close to going right over the edge of wildness, to the point that the plot threatens to blow up. But Perrotta knows the limitations of his audience or perhaps he listens to his prudent side. In any case, he pulls his characters back from the brink of disaster and into what we used to refer to as ‘normality.’ In other words, this is no Wonder Boys. Still, this is the kind of entertaining novel that you want to recommend to others: it will have you laughing to yourself as you’re reading it — and after you have put it down.
When Eve goes to work at a senior center, Perotta give himself an easy opportunity to poke fun at the aging (with a light touch, of course). His devices are a touch farcical: Eve’s transsexual professor comes to the center to give a talk about her life, and the young woman Eve has hired as an assistant sports hardcore tattoos. On a more serious note, Eve’s husband, who left her for a younger woman, gets more than he bargained for. In each of these cases, Perrotta plays around with stereotypes, upending our preconceptions by developing the serio-comic potential of his characters.
Mrs. Fletcher will make a funny Hollywood movie. (Didn’t I tell you that Perrotta was prudent?) Will the film be as good as Election? (That is one of the best lampoons of high school, ever). Maintaining a satirical tone throughout a feature length movie is a challenge; it only works with actors who aren’t afraid of looking a little silly, such as Reese Witherspoon and Matthew Broderick in Election or Frances McDormand and William H. Macy in Fargo. Let’s hope they try: if we’re lucky Mrs. Fletcher will be out next summer. That should give the filmmakers plenty of time to think of a better title.
Ed Meek is the author of Spy Pond and What We Love. A collection of his short stories, Luck, came out in May. WBUR’s Cognoscenti featured his poems during poetry month this year.