What happens when porn shows you how out-of-date you are - The Buffalo News

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What happens when porn shows you how out-of-date you are

FICTION

Mrs. Fletcher

By Tom Perrotta

Scribner

307 pages ($26)

One thing leads to another – and another – in Tom Perrotta’s latest comic foray into the customs and mores of this American moment.

His new novel, “Mrs. Fletcher,” is in fact something of a time capsule when it comes to sex and gender in our country, a barometer (albeit a small one) of how quickly changing practices and beliefs can permeate the masses.

But it is primarily a romp through the lives of single mother Eve Fletcher; her surly son Brendan; her earnest young employee Amanda -- and a plethora of lesser characters including Margo, formerly Mark, the adjunct professor teaching a “Gender and Society” course Eve signs up for at Eastern Community College.

Perrotta, who is used to seeing his work remade for the big screen or TV, is clearly gunning for the same with “Mrs. Fletcher” -- which may be why he keeps the novel, with its potential for some real depth, on the light and easy. No foul. This is Perrotta’s wont, even as Mrs. Fletcher herself seems to reach for more insight as the novel bearing her name unfolds.

“Bye, Mrs. Fletcher. Enjoy the empty nest!” Brendan’s friend Becca bids as Eve prepares to drive her son to his first year in college, no part of her day going the meaningful way she had envisioned it.

How could it, with so much pressure mounting on Eve – who (after packing the car herself because Brendan was hung over) must get him safely to Berkshire State; who (after overhearing him having sex with Becca) must impress upon him the need to respect young women; who (once she drops Brendan off to get on with his life) must figure out what to do with the rest of hers.

Weeks later, as she begins to tend to that last task, she thinks, “The fact that her life had turned into this: this lifeless hush, this faint but elusive whiff of decay. This absolutely-nothing-to-complain-about …”

It is here that she remembers an anonymous text that appeared, days earlier, on her phone: “U r my MILF! Send me a naked pic!!” Eve had been annoyed by the text -- but curious about the acronym, checked it out, and found herself looking, briefly, at computer porn. Now, she was back at it, “for the sixth day in a row,” staring at “milfateria.com ('World’s Biggest Buffet of All-You-Can-Eat Amateur MILF Porn!’),” scrolling through the thumbnails of recently uploaded clips …”

This was unseemly behavior, she chides herself, for the executive director of the Haddington Senior Center -- where she is known for her competence and professionalism and where, in fact, she is so insistent on proper decorum that she recently turned down the idea of a drink after work with her young activities director Amanda Olney. Despite the fact that Eve was lonely and longing for something to do that evening:

“But the first lesson she had to teach (Amanda) was that she was an employee, not a friend. There was a boundary between them that needed to be respected.”

Perrotta paces “Mrs. Fletcher” with clear purpose – starting things slowly and seriously, giving us Brendan’s and Amanda’s points of view as well as Eve’s, then  developing Eve’s growing fascination with porn in real-seeming time. She is uncomfortable with but drawn to her new preoccupation, and staying with it, even while considering it a misadventure:

“She understood that it was a little extreme, or maybe just premature, to call her problem an addiction … but what other label could you use when you did something every night, whether you wanted to or not?” (She soon settles on the “better” label of “habit.”)

Meanwhile, Brendan is spending his freshman year at Berkshire in a state of semi-drunkenness, and/or utter frustration at the university not being the endless pick-your-chick party he had expected. (Yet he continually texts Eve, to assure her that college is “awesome!”)

Back in Haddington, Amanda is spending her evenings watching Netflix and playing Candy Crush – or finding quick hookups on the dating app Tinder. All three seem doomed to a lifetime of angst till Perrotta tips the scales just enough to send Eve off into sexual adventure, starting with her edgy community college evening class.

If porn, she muses, has shown her that she is “seriously out of date,” Dr. Margo Fairchild’s class, “Gender and Society: A Critical Perspective,” almost immediately furthers this notion. And it is here that Perrotta turns on the humor spigot full bore, using the diversity of Eve’s classmates to comprise a whole community of individuals openly immersed in the study of sex and gender.

At one point, Perrotta brings disparate parts of the novel together, creating a rollicking scene as Amanda – eager to shake up the senior center’s guest speaker program – invites “Eve’s teacher” to tell the story of her transgender life to a mostly elderly and aghast audience.

An unplanned orgy, at Eve’s home, ensues – bringing a seeming, if tame, sexual microcosm of the world into a single space (which happens to be Brendan’s bedroom into which he will soon walk). This is laugh-out-loud stuff and a specialty of Perrotta’s, particularly as he reverses the parent-child roles, with middle-aged Eve living it up in Haddington while college freshman Brendan languishes in the Berkshires, wishing to do the same.

It is at this juncture, though, that the thin line between comedy and tragedy cries out for some soul searching, and the question of when the merely risqué is not enough arises. Eve and Brendan both go toward the dark here, Brendan especially as he finds, then physically and emotionally abuses, another freshman on campus, a young woman of obvious substance, named Amber.

There is also the initially touching and sensitive addition of younger siblings with autism – one Amber’s, the other Brendan’s, his a half-brother from his father’s second marriage. But this addition ultimately goes nowhere, as if Perrotta, once he has opened a box of some significance, wants only to deal with the top layer of its contents.

I bring this up again because Perrotta clearly has the chops to go deeper without losing any of the book's often-wonderful wit. In one hilarious yet incisive part of the novel, for instance, he places Eve in a Mrs. Robinson role, she drawn to one of Brendan’s high school nemeses (an 18-year-old named Julian) and he to her.

To give some, but not all, away – Eve ends up doing the right thing, Perrotta once again skating over the obvious complexity here, one assumes to keep everything at a high-laugh level. As a male writer depicting a middle-aged female, however, he does admirably if not quite as convincingly as he does Brendan and Julian, and their sometimes disparate, other times the same young-adult takes on a convoluted world.

“Mrs. Fletcher,” in sum, is already made-for-TV – a conviction bolstered by the novel’s last chapters wherein every problem of every character in the book is not only solved but is also secured by one humongous scarlet ribbon.

Karen Brady is a former News columnist and a frequent News book reviewer.

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