When I saw the title of Tom Perrotta’s novel, Mrs Fletcher, I thought immediately of The Graduate’s Mrs Robinson, and as it turns out, the connection wasn’t that far off. The titular Mrs Fletcher, or Eve, turns out to be a middle-aged woman who’s lusted after by a man young enough to be her son. This is a novel about growing up, growing older, and moving on in a brand new world where sexual confusion meets PC expectations. Perrotta’s light humour makes this story of human flaws and human failings a delight to read.
The novel opens with 46-year-old Eve packing up the U-haul and getting ready to send her only son, high school jock, Brandon, off to college. Brandon, who should be helping his mother is busy getting a farewell blow-job from his h.s. girlfriend, lithe cheerleader, Becca. Brandon actually broke up with Becca, via text, a few weeks earlier but nonetheless she arrives and breezily pushes her way into Brandon’s bedroom.
Eve, annoyed that Becca has spoiled her last day with Brandon, goes to his bedroom door and is shocked when she overhears a detail of her son’s sex life.
Mrs Fletcher follows two trajectories: Eve, divorced, suffering from empty-nest syndrome, and whose entire social life revolves around Facebook, vows to get out and ‘mingle.’ By day she’s the executive director of a senior center, but she enrolls in a night class: Gender and Society taught by a transgendered professor at the local community college. The small class is made up of a wide range of students, but a classmate, bar owner Barry, a “what-you-see-is-what-you-get sort of guy” latches onto Eve.
“I’ve never met a transgendered person before,” she said. “At least I don’t think so.”
“Not that I’m attracted to her,” Barry added in case she’d misunderstood his earlier comment. “I mean, to each his own, right? But that’s a bridge too far for me. I wonder is she tells the guys she dates beforehand.”
“How do you know she dates guys?”
“Just the general vibe I’m getting. You think she got the surgery? I’m not really sure how that works.”
That conversation which is vividly real, is indicative of the book’s tone and main focus. The world has changed. Yes we have male and female but we also have “LGBTQIA voices,” and terms such as “cisgender” and “heteronormative” (I had to look up the definitions). Perrotta’s characters must negotiate this new world with its new terms, new rules. Eve for example, defends the professor’s right to be transgendered, and yet in her secret moments, questions the choice:
In a minivan outside a sports bar, however, the professor’s gender identity seemed a little more precarious, as much wish as reality. It was partly the timbre of her voice in the darkness, and partly just the size of her body in the passenger seat, the way she filled the available space.
I can see who you were, Eve thought, One self on top of the other.
As soon as this uncharitable image occurred to her, she did her best to erase it from her mind. She wasn’t the gender police.
Eve’s life begins to expand into new territory, yet still there’s an emptiness. One night she receives an anonymous text: “U r my MILF,” bored and lonely, she surfs the internet and discovers milfateria.com, a site devoted to “Amateur MILF Porn.” Before long she’s addicted and “infected.”
The second story line follows Brandon who is out-of-his-depths at college, a place he chose specifically for its reputation of being “a party school and he liked to party.” A popular jack in high school, here, he’s an anachronism. He can hang out with other jocks, or he can pursue a girl he’s very attracted to: Amber whose politically active college life includes Autism Awareness.
Perrotta paints a lively picture of college life, and how the sensitivity of gender and gender issues create a minefield in modern society. On the two college campuses seen here, patriarchy is under attack, rape culture is vilified, and yet beyond the campus grounds we see the other side of sex–the stuff minus the philosophical discourse: casual hookups through tinder.com and the sex on porn sites–sex that seems to have escaped the rules of society.
In the porn world, no one seemed to have heard of sexual harassment. Doctors went down on their patients. Personal trainers fondled their clients. Underperforming employees found creative ways to save their jobs.
Given the subject matter, it would have been easy to dip into smutty territory, but this is not Perrotta’s aim. There’s a feeling of melancholy throughout the novel as we follow our troubled, confused characters. He shows us two people, mother and son, at important crossroads in their lives. Both Eve and Brandon face ‘the next stage’ and they both blunder through it. In this ever-shifting world, with the temptations of Craigslist, Tinder, and the internet, it’s hardly surprising that people may make mistakes about sex.
Mrs Fletcher has been optioned by HBO