Monday, August 7, 2017

Tom Perrotta At Barnes & Noble

Mrs. Fletcher by Tom Perrotta
Published by Scribner ISBN 9781501144028
Hardcover, $26, 307 pages

The first book I read by author Tom Perrotta, like many other people, is Little Children, about an affair between a stay-at-home mom and a stay-at-home dad who meet at the playground. Perrotta had young children at that time, so the novel's characters were at the same place in their lives as he was.

Now Perrotta is in his fifties (as am I), and he is facing empty nest syndrome as is the main character in his latest introspective novel, Mrs Fletcher. Perrotta visited Barnes & Noble's 86th Street store on the Upper East Side to talk about it, and other things, last week.

He began by reading a chapter Trouble In Sunset Acres, which is told in the voice of Eve Fletcher's young coworker Amanda, events coordinator at the senior community center where they both work. (The best line in that funny chapter is when Amanda says that "when you are an events coordinator there is always someone to make you miserable." I used to be an events coordinator, so I can totally relate.)

Perrotta then took questions from the audience, which were particularly insightful. One questioner commented on the topic of gender appropriation, as Perrotta wrote from the perspective of Eve. As Perrotta mentioned, it is usually a question of race appropriation that is brought up, but since sex and identity is a major theme in Mrs. Fletcher, it was a good question.

Perrotta responded that "novels can't exist in a world where a writer's imagination is limited". He believes that identity "is at the heart of what divides us as a culture", and that it is "important to find the balance between appropriation and inclusion".

In Mrs. Fletcher, Eve and her college freshman son Brendan are both struggling with identity. Eve is a single mom, now all alone, and after she receives a sexually explicit text message from someone calling her a MILF, she Googles MILF and falls down a rabbit hole of pornography.

She starts a habit of searching out MILF pornography almost every night, and the night class that she takes at the community college on Gender and Society is taught by Margot, a transgender woman who used to be Mark, a college basketball standout, so sex and identity is explored in this intriguing novel.

Perrotta said that he has a fascination with the cultural discourse of sex and gender, and that he wanted to write about pornography because everyone is affected by it, but we don't talk about it. He wanted to embed it in the normal suburban world he knows about.

A question was asked about why he wrote son Brendan in the first person, but Eve and the others are written in the third person. Perrotta responded that he knows that "young man jock" voice well, and thought that it would be more jarring to hear Brendan speak, thus showing the sense of the different worlds that Eve and Brendan inhabit.

What I found most interesting about Mrs. Fletcher is that Perrotta really seems to inhabit each of these characters- Eve, Amanda, Brendan, Amber, Margot, Julian. They are all distinct and feel like people you would meet in this town and college campus.

He also nails the pervasive feeling of loneliness: of a mom whose only child is now gone to college, the jock who goes to college to party and finds that it is not what he expected, the young woman starting a career and looking for friendship, a young man who falls apart after he is bullied in high school.

I have to say that the end of this book truly surprised me. I thought he may be going in one direction, and he went a different way (which I liked). I asked him if he knew the ending before he wrote the book, and he said no, the characters take him to where the story will end.

Perrotta also spoke of his experience working on HBO's The Leftovers, which recently ended its three year run on a high note. He loved the experience, and we discussed how the show will probably be treated more kindly by people as the years pass. (Maybe like The Wire?)

Mrs. Fletcher is a fascinating look at a moment in time when gender and identity are being explored by so many in our culture. Social media and the easy availablity of the internet allows people to be exposed to people and ideas that we may never have been before, in the privacy of our own home. Perrotta places his story in everyday suburbia to emphasize that fact.

I highly recommend Mrs. Fletcher; it's funny, poignant, thought-provoking and yes, even a little provocative, everything you want in a good novel.

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