Mrs. Fletcher by Tom Perrotta
Scribner, 320 pp.
By Robert Allen Papinchak
Tom Perrotta is a master of suburban dramedy. Election (1998) dealt with the comic elements of high school; Joe College (2000) explored the humor of Ivy League shenanigans; Little Children (2004) surveyed domestic dysfunction. This time, Mrs. Fletcher encompasses disastrous events dominated by social media. Perrotta’s droll observations eviscerate the digital worlds of sexting, Skype, Facebook, Tinder, and internet porn. In the process, he examines contemporary issues of autism, feminism, gender, bullying, and empty nests.
Forty-six-year-old divorcee Eve Fletcher, the executive director of a senior center, feels “old and excluded” after dropping off her only child, Brendan, at his college dorm for his first year at Berkshire State University. Together, they have lived in their “suburban comfort zone.” Now, their lives are upended. Eve struggles with the empty nest syndrome while Brendan struggles with attempting to maintain his mindless chauvinistic habits. The morning he leaves home, Brendan dumps his high school girlfriend via text after hangover sex. At the same time, Eve tries to figure out who could have sent her an anonymous phone text which reads “U r my MILF!”
The fug of sex dominates the novel. Eve’s ex left her seven years ago after meeting a woman through a Casual Encounters section on Craigslist. Brendan learns “denial and evasion” from his father, lacking “sexual etiquette and respect for women.” At college, he continues to exploit women along with his equally emotionally stunted roommate, Zack. For them, the “freedom” of college to “’learn and grow’” means pizza runs, drunk-sexting, and dedicating one of their matching mini-fridges to beer.
Eve’s freedom means taking a course at Eastern Community College called “Gender and Society: A Critical Perspective.” Already holding a master’s degree in Social Work, she’s looking for a “fresh start,” (49). She finds it in the “impressively diverse bunch” of fellow students— “half college kids, half older people…two black men…one black woman, a Chinese immigrant man with an indecipherable accent, a young woman in a Muslim head scarf, one really cute undergraduate boy with a skateboard, and a butch woman in biker gear with a black leather vest and a motorcycle helmet resting on the floor between her scuffed engineer boots.”
Each student is expected to write “’autobiographically and analytically about their own problematic experiences on the gender spectrum, with special emphasis on the social construction of identity, the persistence of sexism in a ‘post-feminist’ culture, and the subversion of heteronormative discourse by LGBTQIA voices.’” The class is guided to this goal by Dr. Margo Fairchild, a transgender adjunct professor who was once a “’great college basketball player.’” As a “sexually liberated person,” Eve’s circuitous path to self-discovery leads her to internet porn at milfateria.com. She becomes addicted to the site, exploring a variety of categories of sexual encounters which eventually spill over into her daily personal life.
Alternating chapters reveal Eve’s and Brendan’s new lifestyles. Perrotta introduces numerous fully developed secondary characters. Eve begins an unprofessional relationship with Amanda Olney, a new employee at the Senior Center responsible for organizing events and activities. She socializes with her community college group which leads to an awkward sexual encounter. Brendan finds himself attracted to Amber, an “intersectional feminist” he meets at a student Activities Fair. She is a “straight, cisgender, able-bodied, neurotypical, first-world, middle-class white woman.” She is also the leader of the Autism Awareness Network at the college. Brendan is comfortable in the group because his stepbrother, Jon-Jon, is on the autism spectrum. Zack, who seemed least likely to evolve into a thoughtful person, develops a crush on an unlikely undergrad. Eve and Amanda go on a date, reinventing themselves as Ursula and Juniper. Brendan’s dating history with Amber morphs into an unexpected conclusion.
Eventually, Eve and Brendan reboot their lives. Perrotta’s customary trenchant humor and acerbic social scrutiny turn Mrs. Fletcher into a dynamic examination of a mother and son learning to survive in a post-millennial world.
Robert Allen Papinchak has reviewed a range of fiction in various newspapers, magazines, and journals including the New York Times Book Review, the Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune, the Seattle Times, USA Today, People, The Writer, Publishers Weekly, Kirkus Reviews, the New York Journal of Books, and others. He is a judge for Publishers Weekly’s BookLife Prize creative writing contest. His short fiction has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize; he contributed several biographical critical essays to Scribners’s Edgar award-winning Mystery and Suspense Writers. He has published Sherwood Anderson: A Study of the Short Fiction.