In his new novel Mrs. Fletcher, Tom Perrotta makes not only a timely return to his complex narratives about family dynamics seen in Little Children, but does so in a way we might describe as provocative and pleasingly eye-brow raising.
Perrotta’s main character Eve Fletcher is a divorceé-soon-to-become-empty nester. Her son Brendan is off to college, leaving Eve with the sudden realization that her life truly has no other fulfillment with the exception of her job as the head administrator of a senior’s center. The fact that Brendan’s father cheated on her, and has made a rather happy life with the woman he met on Craigslist and his new special needs son, does nothing to mollify the sense of utter hollowness she now feels has become her new unsatisfactory existence.
One of the most extraordinary scenes in Mrs. Fletcher actually happens in the first chapter when Eve, upset that his son’s girlfriend Becca is taking too long to say goodbye, goes to Brendan’s room only to be shocked not only at the lewd noises coming from the other side of the door, but also at his blatant command to Becca: “Suck it, bitch.” This horrifies Eve on a grander scale, not only because of what she’s witnessing, which no mother wants to, but also at her son’s appalling treatment and disrespect towards women.
Perrotta, as is customary in his novels, tells the story from different points of view, which under the charge of another writer, could have threatened to become tedious. While Eve’s narrative is seen with the bird’s eye view of a third-person narrative, her son Brendan is told from first-person perspective, and as the novel moves forward it becomes clear why Perrotta does this.
Eve in her loneliness and despondency doesn’t take to reading books on how to manage empty nest syndrome. Instead, she turns to porn. However, to say Eve develops a porn fetish may be a bit over the top, because it’s a better fit to describe it as borderline compulsion. As it happens, one site is becomes particularly intriguing to her: Milfateria.com. For readers unfamiliar with porn terminology, MILF is a colorful acronym for ‘mother I’d like to fuck.’
No one has ever said the world of porn is Shakespearean.
Why Eve spends her nights combating her loneliness with what may seem to some as clichéd fantasies, is less important than what she discovers on the way. Seeing the categories of MILF porn that include Lesbo MILFs and Blowjob MILFs just to name two, Eve finds her inhibitions slowly flexing like muscles suffering from long-time atrophy.
She muses over the advantages of her newly found “porn habit,” which translates into “having a lot more orgasms than she used to, which was helping her sleep better, and improving her complexion.” It’s more or less at this point that Eve starts getting text messages from an unknown number with an odd request: ‘Would you be my MILF?’
Aside from the slightly creepy texts, is there anyone who truthfully doesn’t want a better night’s sleep, glowing skin, and an increase in orgasms in middle age?
Eve’s son Brendan is another story. He arrives at college highly disappointed that there isn’t as much partying as he hoped, even though he drinks himself into oblivion on more than one occasion. At first glance one becomes highly annoyed with Brendan’s simpatico ‘bro’ persona, seemingly focused between dumping and not dumping Becca, trying to get laid, bench-pressing, and sending placating texts to his mother. But it soon becomes evident that what Brendan is truly hiding relates to his being the residual casualty of his parents’ divorce. He compensates his unhappiness by being a cretin to almost everyone.
Perrotta bestows on his secondary characters the same complexity as he does to his main ones. There’s Amanda, Eve’s co-worker and employee at the senior’s center who even though younger than the latter, is equally lonely and in crisis. Her evenings are often filled with a finger swipe on Tinder which deals with the boredom Amanda feels her life has become.
She unexpectedly becomes the center of Eve’s sexual fantasies, which are first gently rejected but later encouraged. Then there’s the people from Eve’s Gender Studies class at the community center, which include her transgender professor Margo with whom Eve finds herself bonding with, and Julian, a nineteen year old boy who becomes fascinated by Eve. Unbeknownst to her, he was once object of a cruel prank orchestrated by some of Brendan and some of his friends.
Tom Perrotta’s Mrs. Fletcher certainly breaks ground in giving his female character permission to indulge in the same fantasies that men have forever delved in without a hint of judgment or condescension. The highly disappointing and sadly predictable ending where an inviting story ends up in a tropey and weak finale, doesn’t take away what Perrotta’s narrative moxie has done here.
The fact that Eve is middle-aged, and becomes increasingly miffed when she’s consistently told “she looks great for her age,” will likely connect with any woman over forty who has at one time, been told the same. Mrs. Fletcher sends out a message to older women that it’s okay for them not only to fantasize as men are always given leeway to do, but also explore their own sexuality without any residual guilt or shame.