Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 12 / 22 March 2018

Suburban sexual exploration


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Mrs. Fletcher: A Novel by Tom Perrotta; Scribner, $26

Bestselling author Tom Perrotta has been called the Steinbeck of suburbia, and the Jane Austen of 21st-century sexual practices. He focuses his razor-sharp eye on cultural mores, dissecting their hypocrisies with genteel humor. In the end, order is restored to the burbs. Hollywood has produced several movies based on his books, the most recent being the popular HBO series "The Leftovers." His new novel "Mrs. Fletcher" is cleverly constructed, compulsively readable and adept at creating suspense out of everyday living. This novel has tantalizing moments, but because of a conformist ending, the reader may feel unfulfilled.

Eve Fletcher, a 46-year-old single mother divorcee, is taking her only son, Brendan, to Berkshire State University, a party school. Brendan is a handsome, athletic lout who, even after breaking up with his girlfriend Becca via text, hungover from a night of drinking, is willing to receive a farewell blow job from her. Eve overhears their play and is distressed by his put-down of women ("Suck it, bitch"). She wants to talk to him about it, but he sleeps on the ride to campus and immediately bonds with his roommate Zack, as they plan on drinking, shagging, and videogaming the semester away.

While Eve is the executive director of the Haddington Senior Center and likes her job, she is a lonely empty-nester and soon tires of watching "Friends" reruns and reading Facebook posts ("It had been a lot easier to be a loser before social media, when the world wasn't quite so adept at rubbing it in your face, showing all the fun you were missing out in real time.") One night she receives an anonymous naughty text, "U r my MILF. Send me a naked pic." Googling what MILF means (Mother I'd Like to Fuck), she is introduced to the world of amateur Internet porn featuring sexy middle-aged women. Eve starts to make new friends, enrolling in a community college course, "Gender and Society," taught by transgender professor Margo Fairchild. She becomes infatuated with her younger employee Amanda at work, and Julian, a skateboarding classmate her son's age.

Meanwhile, Brendan (his story is told in first person, Eve's in third person), wounded by his parents' divorce and jealous of his father's new family, assumes women will be at his disposal. Instead he repels his fellow students with his chauvinistic white privilege. He becomes increasingly isolated and flounders in his courses. He is attracted to Amber, a socially conscious woman. They have sex, which the porn-addled Brendan turns rough and degrading, leading to a public shaming. He quits college and returns home to Eve, who is just starting to appreciate her newfound freedom.

The book mostly succeeds as a sexual awakening of a middle-aged woman. Porn becomes the entryway for her to explore her erotic desires. Porn has the opposite effect on the insensitive Brendan, leading to behavior that turns off women. Eve and Brendan's stories alternate throughout the book, and Eve is the more adventuresome, learning to see gender and sexuality as a spectrum rather than a binary. Both explore their identities and make bad choices along the way to hilarious effect, as they muddle their way to happiness, suburban-style.

Perrotta is focused on how we think about sex, how we deal with our unruly desires, and how the Internet has reshaped American dating. Perrotta's most developed character, Margo Fairchild, might be one of the most self-actualized transsexuals in contemporary literature. If only Perrotta had been as daring with Eve, who flirts with lesbianism but never quite gets to the finish line.

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