Thursday, August 30, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #242: Mrs. Fletcher by Tom Perrotta

Other people's secrets are always enticing. So much fiction is explicitly or implicitly about that idea: the desire to know what our neighbors are really doing behind closed doors.

Or, even more, what they're thinking. Pulp fiction cares about bodies; smart fiction cares about minds. What do other people think and feel -- what do they want and how do they struggle with the things they want?

Tom Perrotta has made a career of writing novels and stories about "normal" suburbanites and their secret lives, from Bad Haircut to The Abstinence Teacher. (I choose those points for two reasons: one, that's as far as I've read, since I haven't managed to get to his previous novel, The Leftovers. And, two, I only have a link for Abstinence because I read all of his other books before this blog.)

But Mrs. Fletcher feels even more so than his previous books: it's a novel about internet porn and college hookups, about sexual desire and trying to find the right partner, about how to navigate sex in the 21st century as a middle-aged woman or a college-age man. It's a fizzy, Zeitgeist-y novel -- or it was when Perrotta was finishing it up in 2016, before American society decided to be about entirely different, more contentious things for a few years. But sex is always there, and The Way We Do Sex Now is always a popular topic for books, from Sex and the Single Girl to Sex and the City.

Eve Fletcher is in early middle age: mid-forties, divorced, attractive and slim, with one son (only semi-loutish) heading off to college as the book opens. She has a serious job running the local Senior Center, in the fictionalized Massachusetts bedroom community she lives in -- like all of Perrotta's novels, it takes place in a suburbia much like the one he lives in personally, and is deeply informed by the lives and foibles of the upper-middle class in and around their tasteful homes.

The other major viewpoint character of Mrs. Fletcher is that semi-loutish son: Brendan. He's a jock and a party kid, smart enough not to have had to work hard for anything yet, attractive enough ditto, athletic enough double ditto. He's picked a school at least as much for the partying he expects to do there, and, has apparently never thought deeply about anything.

(There's a third semi-major viewpoint character, who I probably shouldn't spoil. But it's mostly the story of Eve and Brendan, in their different places, as they figure out what Sex Is -- or Should Be -- as they change their life circumstances.)

Eve is left alone: she takes a class at the local community college to get her out of the house and thinking about serious things. Unlike her son, she likes to think. Perrotta also explicitly positions her as someone who already got a Master's degree as an adult: she was used to juggling family and work and classwork while Brendan was younger and his father was flaking out of their lives, so her new life leaves her too little to do.

She falls into the Internet, like so many people who are alone or lonely: first Facebook, like everyone else. But she's still young, and it's been a long time since she's had a relationship -- Perrotta never puts it that crudely, but Eve is definitely horny. And so she finds porn online, settling in to spend many hours on a site Perrota calls MILFateria, which starts to affect how she sees herself and her relationships with other people.

That could be good: Eve has been a non-sexual person for so long, as Brendan's Mom and The Boss at the senior center, that reclaiming herself is positive. But she lives out in random suburbia, among married couples and her co-workers and a bunch of old people at the center -- who can she find, and how can she connect?

Meanwhile, Brendan is having his own issues fitting in. At first, his roommate and two other guys on their hall are his perfect buds: equally ripped, equally shallow, totally matched in wanting to hang out and drink and smoke and play video games and slack off and party with hot girls. But they start doing things without him, like having a serious (in more than one sense) girlfriend, or actually doing their classwork, or just seeing college as a place to become someone new and different. Brendan doesn't think about what he wants, but what he wants instinctively is for nothing to ever change: to keep drifting through life on weed and beer and lacrosse and blowjobs -- all the things that he assumes will just keep coming to him because he's just that awesome.

Eve and Brendan both make bad choices. You can argue about the word "bad," I suppose -- and maybe even the word "choices." They do things, each of them, that are not advisable. Things don't work out as they expect in their heads. Sex is more complicated and difficult than their dreams of sex, and other people don't follow the scripts porn or privilege write for them.

Mrs. Fletcher is the story of a semester, more or less. One woman yearns for something new and one man bumbles in trying to keep doing the same thing in a new place. Perrotta sees deeply into both of them, and into many of the people around them -- that doesn't mean they're admirable, or heroic, or wonderful, because they're not. They're all just people, and people screw up all the time. It's what makes them people.

This is a thoughtful, surprisingly encompassing novel about sex in the 21st century: age, gender roles, gender identification, orientation, feminism, power relationships, privilege, and, in the end, the central importance of mindfulness: of understanding both what you're doing and why you're doing it. As usual, Perrotta is great with flawed, interesting people and constructs loose plots that give room to explore all of his concerns and allow his characters enough rope to get to the end of their tethers.

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