The “struggle” of upper middle class America is well plowed ground. From Revolutionary Road to American Dream white people love examining their own ennui. So too the author Tom Perrotta. The two books I have read by Perrotta, Little Children and his recent effort, Mrs. Fletcher have an element of the TV show Chopped about them - a basket of ingredients that must be mixed together with one rogue element complicating the effort. In the former, it was two unhappily married couples and a tag along friend with a random subplot involving a recently-released child molester moving back into the neighborhood. In the latter, it is a divorceé, her son, a hodge podge of supporting players and a random teenager with whom the eponymous Mrs. Fletcher has sex.
If this sounds like so much navel gazing, you would be correct. At their core, each book is a meditation on the struggle we now call adulting™. Eve Fletcher is worn out from being a single mom with a kid who largely tunes her out and grapples with insecurities about aging, being sexually desirable, and dating. The adults™ she interacts with are similarly worn down from caring for their own ill parents and spouses or nursing regret over careers that have dead-ended - the suburban anomie pervades.
So perhaps it is no wonder that Eve develops a same-sex crush on Amanda, who runs the events calendar at the senior center she leads or falls down a rabbit hole of MILF-porn once Brendan is ensconced at college, but so what? Eve feels shame at her porn consumption and is racked with guilt when she and Amanda have a clumsy non-date date that ends with Eve clumsily making a pass that is rebuffed. Here, it is Amanda, twenty years her junior, who acts like the adult, understanding what a bad idea it would be to get involved with her boss. Ultimately, Eve presses her luck, when she, Amanda, and Justin, a nineteen year-old who was her son’s classmate in high school and ends up in a community college class Eve enrolls in to help pass the time, have a drunken threesome.
Meanwhile, her son Brendan is a paint-by-numbers “bro,” from his CrossFit obsession to his casual misogyny. That Brendan drifts on a cloud of white male privilege is a given, he bores easily, objectifies women like most of us breathe, and has no intellectual curiosity about the world. Perrotta’s dialogue here is almost a parody of what you expect from actual kids of Brendan’s ilk, but its insipidness, oddly, rings true. This is a deformed, underdeveloped young man whose inability to mature is no doubt due to poor parenting.
Of course, Eve is not particularly interested in a forensic accounting of her shortcomings in that department. She is too busy in whatever drama swirl consumes someone at middle age who has a lot of time on their hands but not a lot of actual challenge in her life. Eve does what most people who live a comfortable lifestyle do - she fills her free time with a combination of social and intellectual stimulation that is not too rigorous - just enough wine to take the edge off, just enough engagement with the world to seem like you give a shit. Perhaps I would have enjoyed the book more if Eve was a sympathetic character, but most of the time I just shook my head at her, her poor decisions, obliviousness about her own parental shortcomings, and imperviousness to how easy she actually had it.
Perrotta is also looking to check off as many boxes as possible about the social, cultural, and sexual politics of the day. Brendan leverages the fact that he has an autistic half-brother to make time with Amber, a student a year ahead of him who is active in an on-campus autism awareness group. Eve’s community college professor is transgendered, but when she and Amanda invite the woman to give a lecture at the senior center, the results are predictably bad, with the elderly attendees roundly recoiling at her presentation. When Brendan is publicly shamed by Amber’s friend, he seeks solace with Sanjay, a stereotypically hard-working, no-fun Indian-American who Brendan had previously dismissed as a buzz kill and loser.
As a commentary on white privilege, Perrotta is spot on. Eve suffers no consequences from her ill-advised threesome. Amanda doesn’t sue, she quickly finds work elsewhere (with an assist from Eve’s glowing recommendation) and Justin also keeps quiet, apparently, he is the one male teenager in the world who doesn’t share bawdy MILF photos or brag about sleeping with a woman more than twice his age. Within months of hitting a bottom that included ALMOST having a second fling with Justin, Eve has remarried, to an age appropriate “decent guy” who recently lost his wife to cancer. Similarly, Brendan, who starts out demeaning his high school girlfriend before pulling the same stunt on Amber, is not reported for date rape. Instead, he just moves back home, where, within months, he is under the wing of Eve’s betrothed, who is training him to be a plumber. At the wedding, Brendan is introduced to the man’s daughter, his eye refocused on predation that will inevitably start the circle all over again.
In one of my favorite scenes from Breaking Bad Jesse is unburdening himself at a Narcotics Anonymous meeting. He is in pain and does not understand why he has suffered no consequences for his many bad decisions - he asks “if you do a bunch of stuff and nothing happens, what does it mean?” In Perrotta’s world it means you are a privileged white person.
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