Tom Perrotta writes books that are so compulsively readable that you may get to the end of one before it hits you that it wasn’t super satisfying. That’s the case with Mrs. Fletcher, his latest anthropological look at dissatisfied suburban moms and disaffected teenagers. Many of his past books have focused on either one (Little Children and The Abstinence Teacher for moms) or the other (Joe College and Election for the youngsters); by giving both something close to equal time, he ends up not really doing justice to either. The book goes from “this is great” to “is that it?” in record time as an abrupt third act leaves too many strands unresolved or forgotten.
The book moves from point of view to point of view with each chapter, a style Perrotta has used before, but which here fragments rather than complements the narrative. The main character is Eve Fletcher, a single mom struggling with empty nest syndrome after her son goes off to college. She’s lonely and aimless in that Perrotta way, and is a total MILF, according to an anonymous text she receives one night, kicking off the plot. Also narrating is Eve’s son, Brendan, a popular high schooler who finds himself lost amid the new rules of politically correct college life. More infrequently, there’s Amanda, Eve’s much younger co-worker, going through an ennui of her own; Amber, Brendan’s crush, who is committed to a state of total wokeness at all times; and Julian, a former classmate of Brendan’s who finds himself in the orbit of his former enemy’s mom.
One gets the sense that Perrotta has been out-Perrotta-ed by the world. The subjects he tackles here—social justice causes and the feeling of alienation that comes from social media, smartphones, and internet porn—seem so completely up his alley that if he hadn’t written a book about them, society should’ve commissioned one. However, real life has surpassed his imagination and sympathetic cynicism. By now there’s no way to exaggerate these things, which means he’s unable to satirize them. His typically penetrating insights come off as more snarky and judgmental than observant. Yes, Eve would no doubt be thrown by how quickly googling MILF leads her to a daily porn habit, but from the outside perspective of the reader, this comes off with all the hysteria of Marge Simpson’s descent into a single glass of wine.
Here’s how Perrotta introduces Amber, a rundown that would be biting were it not how some people sincerely describe themselves these days:
Amber was painfully aware of the mismatch between her politics and her desires. She was an intersectional feminist, an advocate for people with disabilities, and a wholehearted ally of the LGBT community in all its glorious diversity. As a straight, cisgender, able-bodied, neurotypical, first-world, middle-class white woman, she struggled to maintain a constant awareness of her privilege, and to avoid using it to silence or ignore the voices of those without the same unearned advantages, who had more of a right to speak on many, many subjects than she did. It went without saying that she was a passionate opponent of capitalism, patriarchy, racism, homophobia, transphobia, rape culture, bullying, and microaggression in all its forms.
But when it came to boys, for some reason, she only ever liked jocks.
The key issue is how the book mentions these kinds of issues without really grappling with them, especially since Perrotta teases entries into the kind of murky waters he navigates so well. The book opens with Eve disgusted to overhear Brendan’s misogynistic dirty talk, and it’s easy to imagine a version of Mrs. Fletcher where Perrotta explores consent and college drinking while Eve grapples with the idea of her son as a predator. Instead, it feels like he’s working through a checklist of body shaming, white privilege, Black Lives Matter, and transgender issues, with only the last one explored in any real depth (Eve takes a gender studies class taught by a woman who has transitioned). It’s actually surprising the book doesn’t reference trigger warnings or safe spaces, and the big blowup he seems to be building to—you’ll know the moment—is instead brushed off as a close call.
Perrotta still writes with an undeniable snap, and character details will frequently hit the bull’s-eye. This gang is unusually stereotypical for him, rather than archetypal (are Brendan’s first-person chapters bad writing or just an accurate rendering of a shallow, incurious douchebag?), but there’s no bullshit in the way he depicts Eve’s views of her parenting ability. She “knew she was being a coward,” he writes at one point, “abdicating her parental responsibility, but letting him off the hook was pretty much a reflex at this point.” Later he states it bluntly: “[Brendan] just wasn’t as nice a person as he used to be—not nearly as sweet or as kind or as lovable—and she couldn’t forgive herself for letting that happen, for not knowing how to protect him, or how to fix what was broken.”
Perrotta admirers will admire much of Mrs. Fletcher, though they may mourn the better version that’s visible in the margins. It’s likely he was working on this when he was also involved with the magnificent third season of The Leftovers; it feels rushed in a way that suggests a split focus. Were he to return to the ideas he tackles here and give them his undivided attention, the results would be unbeatable.
For a place to discuss the ending we don’t reveal here, head over to The Last Page.