The Hippo


Sep 24, 2017








Mrs. Fletcher, by Tom Perrotta
(Scribner, 307 pages)


 Whether by genius or coincidence, Tom Perrotta’s new novel arrived in bookstores as a fresh crop of 18-year-olds was packing for college. Many would leave their parents bereft of laundry and purpose, like Eve Fletcher, the doting mom at the center of Perrotta’s ninth book, Mrs. Fletcher.

You know Eve, or someone just like her. She chirps “Off to college! So happy for my amazing son, Brendan!!!” to her 221 friends on Facebook before getting in the car to deliver a mediocre student to a university from which he seeks nothing but beer, girls and good times.
When pressed by an adviser to say what he wants out of college, the amazing Brendan can only say he wants a degree so he can get any kind of job that pays six figures, “maybe not right away, but pretty soon.” Good luck with that, kid.
Eve’s singular devotion to Brendan and his well-being prevents her from seeing him as the clueless, selfish lunkhead that he is. So when Brendan is gone, Eve, who is divorced and works at a senior center, battles the impulse to succumb to despair at her empty house, and instead fills her newfound time in constructive ways: taking a class, making new friends and getting addicted to internet porn.
The addiction to porn wasn’t intentional.
The night after she dropped Brendan off at college, Eve got an anonymous text that said “U r my MILF! Send me a naked pic” and something else that can’t be printed here.
MILF is an acronym for — how to put it? — mothers who are still sexy, which the 46-year-old Eve is. She’s mildly annoyed at the text, which she assumes has come from one of Brendan’s drunken friends, but in her boredom she starts searching the term online. Most of what she encounters is gross, but every now and then she comes across a video that she finds strangely compelling.
“The couple on the screen would seem inspired, or even blessed — you could see how alive and happy and unselfconscious they were — and maybe you envied them a little, but you also wanted to thank them for sharing this moment with you….”
This might be the time to mention that Mrs. Fletcher is not for prudes, or the easily offended. The unflinching depictions of Eve’s foray into porn, and Brendan’s crude sexual adventures, pass only HBO’s standards: pretty much anything goes if it advances the story. Moreover, Mrs. Fletcher is a coming-of-age story on two levels: that of the mother and that of her son. The two are expanding their horizons in ways that involve taking off their clothes, oftentimes in circumstances in which they shouldn’t.
That said, the sex is not gratuitous, but important to the story, which is rollicking good fun, and wickedly smart. Perrotta, known best for two novels made into acclaimed movies (Little Children and Election) and one that became an HBO series (The Leftovers), has the sort of effortless style that readers love and writers hate.
Each character springs to life and cavorts around the room as you read: from the mom and her son, to her coworkers at the senior center (including a female subordinate on whom Eve develops a crush), to Brendan’s randy college roommate (whom we suspect of sending the MILF text), to the transgender professor teaching Eve’s night-school class, “Gender and Society: A Critical Perspective.”
An especially hilarious scene is one in which Brendan goes to an eye-opening college party — dubbed “EVERY BODY IS BEAUTIFUL!” — in which everyone strips down to their underwear and dons a nametag on which they reveal the body part that causes them the most angst. True to form, Brendan can only admit “calves could be bigger,” while others write things like “huge nose,” “right one way bigger,” “furry arm hair” and “man boobs.”
Like Perrotta’s previous work, Mrs. Fletcher is not mindless entertainment, but a biting commentary on modern existence and the endless struggle to adapt to changing mores. Eve’s mind-expanding adventures and temptations, and Brendan’s refusal to mature, are wrapped into a cultural burrito of gender confusion and rapidly changing expectations of aging and sexuality. 
It is, as Eve’s professor tells her class on their first night together, “an ideological minefield that we walk through every minute of every day.” And like the class, ultimately the book gently teaches “how to walk through the minefield without hurting anyone’s feelings or blowing yourself up.” But Mrs. Fletcher is way more fun than the class. A — Jennifer Graham 

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