Mrs. Fletcher – the latest from Tom Perrotta – is a frustrating little book.
I say “little” because it clocks in at just over 8.5 hours in the unabridged Audible version. I’m used to reading massive tomes that routinely have three or four parts of that length. So even though it’s perfectly novel-sized, it seems like something’s missing.
“Little” is also an apt description because so little of actual consequence happens in the book. It’s not that the book is plotless (I hate it when people complain that a book or movie has “no plot” – unless you’re indulging in seriously experimental shit, it certainly does), it’s just that it never gets to the point of making you really feel like you needed to drop in on the lives of these characters.
The main character is the titular Mrs. Fletcher (Eve to her friends), a single mother who, as the novel starts, is sending her son Brendan off to college. How Eve deals with her new status as an empty nester is what drives the book, as she tries to come to grips with her life. She goes back to school, taking a class at a local community college. She continues to work as the director of the local seniors’ center.
And she discovers Internet porn. In a big honking way. This is due to someone (her son’s college roommate, most likely) who sends her an anonymous text telling her she’s a MILF. It’s not right to say she becomes addicted, but it does change her way of looking at the world and sets her up for what seems like it will be the book’s dramatic conclusion, which never actually happens.
Along the way we jump into the head of several others in Eve’s orbit. There’s her son, a dull, uncurious bro who finds himself completely out of his depth at college. There’s her work underling, with whom things get entirely too complicated. There’s also the professor of her class, a transitioned transgender woman teaching a class on society and gender roles. All of these give Perrotta a lot of chance to dive into hot button issues of the day, but he mostly skips over them. The professor, for instance, gives one of the regular lectures at the senior center Eve runs and while it doesn’t go well, we only learn of the real fallout of it later in passing. We do, at least, get some really moving background on the professor.
That’s really my biggest beef with Mrs. Fletcher. I like Perrotta’s style – darkly humorous, but in a subtle way – but the parts don’t really amount to a compelling whole. At one point Eve has a protracted back and forth with one of her son’s former classmates that seems to be spiraling to something horrible, the kind of something that a disaffected teen would see as the only option. It never gets there and we’re not given any good reason why it doesn’t. It’s like Perrotta puts a bunch of plates in the air and then, flush with the success, just walks away and lets them drop. That’s borne out in the painfully rushed happy ending, a tacked-on resolution that seems like it was added in the shadow of an onrushing deadline.
My only prior experience (on the printed page) with Perrotta was The Leftovers, which I read on a plane to Cambodia after the first season of the HBO show. I liked it a lot, not just for the dark comedy (which the show didn’t really nail until after the first season, ironically), but for how Perrotta subverted the expectations of the genre. Any other speculative fiction story about the world after a mass disappearance would focus, at least somewhat, on trying to figure out what actually happened, why everybody went missing. Nobody in The Leftovers does that and it works brilliantly – this is about regular people left behind, no heroes. Nothing much happens.
But now I’m wondering if that’s just Perrotta’s shtick. It’s almost as if Mrs. Fletcher is a kind of dry run, a little bit of world and character building for something that’s going to have a broader scope. Wouldn’t you know it – it is! Maybe Eve and friends will get a little more substance when they hit the small screen.