Friday, October 20, 2017

Mrs. Fletcher by Tom Perotta

Mrs. Fletcher by Tom Perotta. Scribner, 307 pages. $26.

By Ed Meek

A summer read that pushes our buttons and makes us laugh.

Tom Perrotta, who lives in Belmont, is one of a select group of successful American novelists and screenwriters. Dennis Lehane is the other local writer who has made it big.  Where Lehane’s work is dark and edgy and focuses on crime, Perrotta is a satirist who likes to make the reader 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, breaks his son’s nose when he slaps him. But then, Perrotta creates sympathy for the same character when his wife divorces him, he is shunned and he feels terrible about what he did.  By zeroing in on political correctness in his writing, Perrotta is able to make fun of many of our current cultural obsessions. At the same time, Perrotta is an accomplished writer who knows how to plot and how to withhold information to keep us reading. Finally, he can write with fluidity from a number of different points of view. As a grad student at Syracuse, Perrotta worked with Tobias Wolf who is also adept at all those facets of writing (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 sections from her point of view and first person sections from the perspective of her son Brendan. Brendan is a “bro” who is starting college at a local university.  These two characters enable Perrotta to take on the older single woman looking for love and self-affirmation and the shifting sexual and identity roles in the current college scene. 

 Because her son goes 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, who has left his cheerleader girlfriend behind, falls for a beautiful college female softball player with swimmers’ shoulders who is running a club in support of autism sensitivity.  She and Brendan have much different ideas about sexual roles.

When Brendan first gets to college he meets with an insipid advisor who reminds him that “No means no.” I thought Perrotta might venture into the quagmire of rape on college campuses where a female victim might drag a mattress everywhere 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 into wildness and the plot threatens to blow up, but Perrotta knows his audience or perhaps he has a 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, it’s no Wonder Boys. It is the kind of novel you want to share with someone else and it will have you laughing to yourself as you’re reading and after you put it down.

With Eve working at a senior center, Perotta also gets to poke fun at the old (with a light touch) when Eve’s transsexual professor comes to the center to give a talk about her life, and when the young woman Eve has hired as an assistant sports  hardcore tattoos. Eve’s husband, who left her for a younger woman, gets more than he bargained for with an autistic son. In each of these cases, Perrotta upends a stereotype, playing with our preconceptions by developing his characters.

Mrs. Fletcher will make a funny movie. Will it be as good as Election? (one of the best satires of high school ever).  Admittedly, it isn’t easy to maintain a satirical tone throughout a feature length movie, and satire only works with actors who aren’t afraid of looking a little silly like Reese Witherspoon and Matthew Broderick in Election or Francis Farmer and William Macy in Fargo. If we’re lucky Mrs. Fletcher will be out next summer.  That should be plenty of time to think of a better title.

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