Tom Perrotta’s latest novel, Mrs. Fletcher, involves a lot of porn and sexual adventure, but that’s not to say it’s lacking in heart. Beneath the more sensational parts of the book is a story about embracing the fluidity of your identity and giving yourself the freedom to change.
The first part of the novel cuts between the titular character of Eve Fletcher—a single mother in her mid-forties—and her son Brendan during a major transitory period in both of their lives. Brendan leaves home for his first year of college, and Eve is alone for the first time. In her son’s absence, she is left to reexamine her choices. Her newfound independence becomes the impetus for her awakening sexually, intellectually, and socially. Specifically, she becomes transfixed by lesbian porn sites and starts seeing the scenes of her life through the lens of porn scenarios. This leads her to sign up for a Gender and Society course at the local community college, as well as question aspects of her identity she once thought were fixed.
Meanwhile, Brendan envisioned that college would just be about parties, drinking, and hooking up with girls. After a few weeks there, though, his fantasy begins to fall apart; he finds that students at his university aren’t willing to entertain the misogynistic behavior he got away with in high school. He gets romantically involved with an activist, and through his experiences with her comes to realize how blind he’s been to his privilege and male entitlement. He’s spent his life treating women like they were subordinates without ever questioning it. While he never transforms into an upstanding citizen, Brendan does slowly accrue morsels of self-realization that indicate he’s capable of growing up—it just might take a few more women putting him in his place to get there.
Initially, Perrotta’s technique of intercutting between Eve dealing with her empty nest and Brendan at college accentuates Eve’s isolation. As the novel goes on, however, Perrotta widens the scope of the story and begins to introduce a rich cast of supporting characters. For example, one of the most interesting relationships in the book is between Eve and one of her young colleagues, Amanda. These two women are lonely in different ways and for different reasons; Amanda’s stuck living in the town she grew up in, in her dead mother’s house, feeling rudderless. Her youth and desire for a friend become enticing to Eve. The dynamic of their bond is complicated and one of my favorite to examine: the confused boundaries of female infatuation. It remains messy throughout the novel, with both of them working through both real and projected desires.
As Perrotta has shown in his past work, he’s a master at creating characters who exist in a space of ambiguity and asking the reader to muster empathy for them, which is easy to do thanks to his palpable affection for them. Every character in this book is complicated and fully realized. Eve’s husband, for instance, is a man who has done all the stereotypical things a “bad husband” would do–he cheated, he abandoned her, and he left her to raise their son on her own—but you never dismiss him as a bad man. His scenes with his second wife and their autistic child give you the sense that he’s a decent man trying his best to learn from past mistakes. Also. he continues showing Eve gentle affection, checking in on her periodically to see how she’s doing with their son gone. He even visits Brendan at college for Parents Day.
Similarly, Brendan could be modeled after the worst guy you went to high school with. Though you’ll probably always write off that guy for being a dick, Perrotta shows Brendan’s layers. His entitlement is interlaced with a naïveté that makes him tolerable. so while he never fully transforms into an enlightened, sensitive man, he does become more self-aware throughout the course of the novel. Really, all of the characters in Mrs. Fletcher do bad things, but we never confuse them for bad people.
Eve’s Gender and Society class gives her a place to work through her thoughts about the fluidity of gender and sexuality. It also ameliorates her isolation; through it, she’s able to befriend a group of people she wouldn’t have found otherwise, and she stumbles upon friendships that bring out a happiness in her that she hadn’t anticipated. She begins a flirtatious relationship with Julian, her eighteen-year-old classmate whom her son bullied mercilessly in high school. Her feelings about Julian shake Eve and begin to consume her thoughts. It makes sense, then, that the title of the novel is a nod to The Graduate, but unlike Mrs. Robinson, Eve is constantly scolding herself for her urges and indiscretions. The end of the novel is propulsive and full of suspense, as you wait to find out what Eve will do about her flirtation with Julian. Yet, whether or not she’ll pursue an affair with this young boy is almost irrelevant by then.
There’s a line in Jenny Offill’s book Dept. of Speculation where the narrator realizes that as she gets older, she may become the type of person she used to mock: “But now it seems possible that the truth about getting older is that there are fewer and fewer things to make fun of until finally there is nothing you are sure you will never be.” I kept thinking of this line while reading Mrs. Fletcher. Eve is at a similar place in her life, and accepting the uncertainty of her identity ignites a spark in her that gives her the courage to evolve.