Tom Perrotta is the most contemporary of American writers chronicling life in the American suburbs, a distinguished tradition in American fiction that probably starts with John O’Hara, runs through John Updike, and continues with and through Perrotta (this month’s review of Cynthia Osborne’s new novel Fall Tides runs parallel to Perrotta’s book; hers takes place in l995, and is seen from the rare perspective of an American woman writer, while Perrotta’s is the first postmodern novel of this ilk).
Perrotta has studied and learned Gender Studies, which is part of what makes Mrs. Fletcher, the novel in question, so successful and so very contemporary. Mrs. Fletcher, or Eve, is a woman in her mid-forties, divorced, living with her galumphing oaf of a son, the classic jock/drinking boor so familiar to Americans from the fifties to the recent past. Right on the eve of departing for a third rate college, as this son wants nothing more from college than “to party”, mother Eve overhears him saying good-bye to his high school girlfriend in his bedroom at home, where’s she’s giving him a blow job, saying “suck it, bitch”. This particular line will turn out to haunt him later in the novel.
Eve runs a Senior Center, and she’s good at her work; her assistant, Amanda, director of programming, and Eve begin to blur the boundaries between boss and employee (fertile territory, that, in today’s fraught world of work). When, eventually, they have a couple of drinks together, and then dinner, the two women begin to sense a strong sexual attraction–here’s where Perrotta is incredibly clever and most au courant–and the two women (mild spoiler alert), plus a student who’s in high school with Eve’s son, will end up having a three-way together in the son’s bedroom, scene of the aforementioned blow job. That two women, in this case, should flirt with one another and proceed with real sex, along with a much younger young man, breaks every known middle class American boundary–until you meet our millennial generation (whose ideas I often find very compelling). Gender, in the world of millennials and their teachers, is a social construct, and people are physically and/or sexually attracted to a person, not a gender: this may seem very radical to older Americans, but it’s part of the new American reality, particularly amongst progressives, so that Perrotta’s novel is itself both progressive and even radical. And when Eve’s slug of a son is at college, and immediately bonds with a seemingly like-minded “dude” in attitudes generally, he will find the roommate distancing himself, to discover that said roommate is dating a disabled woman (a very unhip thing to do for men of this ilk). And when the son begins to open up, just a little bit, to a new young woman he’d like to date (whom he meets at the Autism Center on the campus), and when they do have sex, and he says, again “suck it, bitch”, she kicks him in the nuts and throws him out. He will later find a drawing of himself on a kind of “avoid these people” wall, a kind of safe space on campus. He drops out of college……
By allowing Eve Fletcher free reign to experiment with her desires (she has a long flirtation on her i-phone with lesbian porn), Perrotta is reflecting the values of a very changing America. The genera circumstances of the novel–divorced woman at midlife, living comfortably, if vapidly, in the suburbs, with her asshole son, goes back as far as O’Hara and Cheever, to be sure. But Perrotta expands the range of both emotions and of desire, because of the increasingly important work done by those teaching Gender Studies; although Eve Fletcher remarries a man, her ex-employee, Amanda, will partner later with a woman. All these scenarios are simply presented as the current version of life in America now. And Perrotta’s vision of America is very progressive indeed, as well as very persuasive (the novel’s also often very funny, and sometimes poignant). His tone isn’t excessive, or preachy; he structures the novel so that Eve is the narrator in one chapter, and the son, in the next, which is a very effective trope in tying the novel together. And Perrotta’s largest contribution in Mrs. Fletcher is to move gender and sexuality–which are different– past any other contemporary writer , and into the realities of 21st century America, with great success. The novel is thus didactic as well as funny and fulfilling; I recommend it wholeheartedly.