Tom Perrotta's Mrs. Fletcher: Sharp, Recycled, or Cheap?


MRS. FLETCHER  (August 2017)
By Tom Perrotta
Simon & Schuster, 320 pp.
★★ ½

I mused over Tom Perrotta's latest before attempting to write about it. Perrotta has never shied from unsettling themes, so I knew that Mrs. Fletcher wasn't going to be mannered. I pondered whether Mrs. Fletcher is a crib of turf he's already trod in Election (1998), Little Children (2004), and The Abstinence Teacher (2007); a Zeitgeist-capturing look at modern relationships; or just a trashy and clichéd pastiche of buzz topics. After careful rumination, I still can't decide.

If you're looking for wholesome, cast your gaze elsewhere. As fans of Perrotta's The Leftovers know, he's a sharp critic of the gap between the values Americans purport to hold and how they actually conduct their lives. There's a lot of sex in Mrs. Fletcher and quite a bit is degrading. All acts of fellatio seem to come with the recipient commanding, "Suck it bitch." You could read this as punctuating misogyny with a phallic exclamation point. You could also conclude it merely titillates in a prurient fashion. Without giving anything away, let me add that there are more deeply inappropriate relationships in this book than in Congress and the White House combined. Is that how it is in modern America, or is Perrotta just being as nasty as he wants to be? Similar split readings arise over other plot devices: Craigslist pickups, Internet porn, LGBTQIA themes, casual hookups, hazing, autism, the cougar phenomenon…. Do these add complicating depth to characters, or are they contrivances designed to make the novel seem more "relevant" and "contemporary?" (Terms in quotation marks because the definitions of such terms are up for grabs.)   

The novel's epigraph is from the pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus: "The way up and the way down is one and the same." Heraclitus was a foundational thinker in what is called the unity of opposites. In oversimplified terms, the idea is that we understand most concepts in relationship to its opposite(s)—love presupposes hate, good requires evil, etc. Do healthy relationships requite contemplation of unhealthy alternatives? Can contemplation take place without actual walks on the wild side?

The titular character is 46-year-old Eve Fletcher, a still attractive divorcee, but one aware that her life is at a crossroads. As the director of a senior center, Eve witnesses decay and death daily, and she has just dropped off her only child, Brendan, for his freshman year at Berkshire State University*, where she's perceived as ancient by other students. That point is driven home also by Brendan's disrespect and his infrequent texts that touch upon campus life. She even feels like a frump around Amanda Olney, her tattooed and energetic recreation director at the senior center. Eve's midlife funk is so deep that she's afraid to confront the fact that her son is a total asshole. Just to change the frame a bit, she signs up for a Gender and Society class at a community college in Haddington, Massachusetts (a fictional town that's clearly a Boston suburb). Her instructor is Margo—once Mark—Fairchild. Will this be a spark to make her rethink her rutted life, or will it confirm how out of touch she has become?

Perrotta divides the novel into five parts—The Beginning of the Great Whatever, The End of Reluctance, Gender and Society, The MILF, and Lucky Day—each one focusing on paths taken or forsaken by one or more of the book's major characters. Eve is the book's center, but hers is not the only point of view. Whatever else one makes of the book, Perrotta has plotted it well and has populated it with secondary characters that have stories and issues of their own. He even redeems cheaper prose with occasional gems, such as describing a Bikram yoga instructor as  "a beautiful Asian man with the body of a gymnast and the soul of a drill sergeant."

And yet, there are aspects of the book that unsettle me in ways other than its inherently creepy details. It began to stretch credulity that Eve could know so many people simultaneously making unwise decisions. Nearly every male character —Brendan; Eve's ineffectual ex-husband, Ted; cranks at the senior center; a bartender who hits on patrons; and skateboarding Julian, a self-described PTSD high school survivor—is a jerk, a loser, pathetic or all three. Not that the women in the book specialize in Socratic logic either. Eve dances on the razor's edge so often that we wonder why she hasn't sliced herself in two. Perrotta seems to be leading us to consider that damaged individuals must hit bottom before they reverse course. Does he do so, or is his "Lucky Day" section more tacked on than organic? What would Heraclitus say?

I remain conflicted. The good news is that the book moves crisply, so you won't invest much time in checking it out for yourself. If, however, after 75 pages or so you find Mrs. Fletcher too tawdry, give up. It won't get any nicer for quite some time.

Rob Weir   

Berkshire State is clearly modeled on UMass Amherst, especially its physical appearance, its campus activism, its ideological diversity, and its honors college. Other parts are stereotypes that died in the 1980s. In a recent ranking of top party schools, UMass ranked a mere 69th. Nor does anyone complain about the food—UMass cuisine ranks #1 in the nation!

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