Mrs. Fletcher, Tom Perrotta, Hardcover, 309pp, August 2017, Scribner
I read Tom Perrotta’s The Leftovers in 2012 which I know only because I use Goodreads to track my reading history and I check when entering a book to see if I’ve read other works by the author.
The first thing that earlier novel has in common with Mrs. Fletcher is I was enticed by its blurbs and synopsis. The Leftovers was all about what would happen to those left behind were the biblical rapture to actually occur; an irresistible fantasy for a lapsed-Roman Catholic-agnostic like myself. Mrs. Fletcher‘s promos promise a “feverish turning of pages” through a “hilarious, provocative … joyride” by a “smart, fearless … wet-your-pants-funny satirist” as he explores what seems a fascinating premise about up-to-the-minute issues facing the world today, like parent-child relationships, on-line persona versus real-life person, and the various comings of age one now goes through in a world of much longer lives with many more options for personal relationships of varieties both deep and shallow, erotic and platonic; irresistible for a lapsed real-life personality who lives behind various on-line personas like myself.
The second thing The Leftovers and Mrs. Fletcher have in common is the promise of the premise was not — for me — kept.
In all fairness, it started with the title. I couldn’t divorce the name, Mrs. Fletcher, from years of the same-named mystery-solving-novelist character played by Angela Lansbury on Murder, She Wrote.
That aside, Mrs. Fletcher — here named Eve — is divorced, director of a senior center, and her only child, Brendan, is leaving the comfort of his upper-middle-class suburban, popular-jock-boy life for college. Brendan is expecting to continue his partying and privilege at an elevated level, while Eve is dreading what she fears will feel like abandonment and loneliness. The conflict and comedy(?) come from the expectations of each one’s expected experience more or less happening to the other.
Eve is drawn into online porn portals, begins unusual and unexpected friendships and pursuits, and revels in her new privacy and life, at the same time Brendan becomes a pariah at college and suffers agonizing loneliness. Eve is affected by sexual text-messages from unknown and shockingly inappropriate (to her mind) people, while Brendan’s attempts to alter things with his texting fail, distancing him further and further from what he desires. This reversal of expected fortunes extends to Brendan’s one sexual escapade, which reveals him (to himself and others) to be a near-predator rather than the skilled stud who buys condoms in bulk he thought he was, while Eve’s multiple forays into new erotic territories reveal her to be far more open and sensual and attractive than she’d considered herself before.
Other characters in the novel are also grappling with loneliness, sexual desire and identity and need, and — to one degree or another — hiding parts of themselves, channeling life-energy into who they imagine themselves to be as opposed to actually being those people; as if everyone in the novel is living a double-life: the civilized, following the rules of polite society persona presented to the world, and the fantasy-self, the daring, boundary-free, get what they want, be fully who they dreamed of being self. It’s Life-porn — that best self, what if, yes I could if only scenario we have running in our heads when imagining what life could be.
And this novel — and most of Mr. Perrotta’s work is, essentially, just that: Life Porn. He specializes in almost but not quite satirizing and exposing the flaws and foibles of the middle and upper middle class suburbanites and communities about whom and which he writes. And he writes well with a hip kind of mass-market-faux-literary-fiction rhythm and just enough cynical judgment to let the very people about whom he writes nod in agreement that they can see their neighbors in his stories.
It’s a frustratingly fence-straddling lack of commitment to real social satire, the “isn’t this awful” combined with “aren’t we cute” thing that rankles and disturbs. And judges. Eve toys with exploring sexuality, but, without spoiling, reverts to suburban-polite-society-republican conformity.
In a novel that seems to aim for wanting to explore the effect of new ways of communicating and the availability of all sorts of connections, and too, the numbing effect of same, no one seems much changed by what goes on. There is never really anything at stake.
And that’s fine. Mr. Perrotta has every right to write whatever he likes; and it’s skilled story-telling, fast reading, and interesting enough. BUT, there is so much more gift there — in the possibilities of the story, the richness of the subject matter, and in the author’s clear intelligence and emotional insights — one can’t help wishing he’d gone further, deeper, beyond the expected and more into the boundary-free, behind the public persona, Life Porn reality that lots of us are living today.