Books

In His New Novel, Tom Perrotta Tackles Sex in the Digital Age

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It’s never too late for reinvention, or so believes the cast of characters in Mrs. Fletcher (Scribner), the latest tragicomic novel from Tom Perrotta, bestselling author of The Leftovers, Little Children, and Election. After dropping her son off at college for his freshman semester, Eve Fletcher, the book’s 46-year-old divorcée and titular heroine, finds herself with an empty nest and a healthy sexual appetite. How best to take advantage of such freedom? She’s unsure until she receives a text from an unknown number calling her a “MILF.” The prank initially disgusts her, but a week later, having conducted internet research, she develops a porn habit courtesy of fictional website milfateria.com. Watching all that onscreen sexing changes a person. “It was like a blind date or a party,” the author writes. “Some people you liked right away, some you didn’t. Some you weren’t sure about. The saucy soccer mom was horrible, a giggly woman performing a clumsy striptease with the TV blaring in the background. Eve clicked out of that, tried ‘Swedish MILF Pink Dildo!’ then ‘Italian Wife Deepthroat’ and ‘Sexy Abigail Morning Fuck.’ None of them did anything for her. But there was always another one.”

“I had read Elena Ferrante’s The Days of Abandonment and thought it was amazing,” says Perrotta. “The character kind of goes crazy and you go crazy with her. I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be interesting to write a novel about a middle-aged woman who gets obsessed with a porn site and suddenly her whole world becomes eroticized as a result?’ Like she finds a sexual identity within that. It changes the possibilities that she perceives in the world.”

As with Ferrante’s novel, Perrotta intended Mrs. Fletcher to be told from his female protagonist’s point of view. He’d only finished a chapter before realizing he wanted to write from her son Brendan’s perspective as well. Says the 55-year-old: “That was the biggest thing that surprised me on a craft level, that my intention just dissolved after one chapter and I realized that I had to explore various other people in Eve’s world.” From there the ensemble ballooned. In its published version the book features a range of well-drawn players; highlights include Eve’s transgender community college professor, Dr. Margo Fairchild; Amanda, a heavily tattooed younger woman who works at a senior center with Eve and becomes the unwitting object of Eve’s affections; and Julian, a sensitive, long-haired skater type, who was tortured in high school by Brendan and his jock friends. But the novel mainly alternates between Eve’s story and Brendan’s — a lonely mom led hilariously astray by the web, and her son, a party-animal douchebag who discovers late in life that actions have consequences.

“My kids have gone to college, so I guess I’ve been aware of that as a moment of possible reinvention,” Perrotta explains. “But also I’m interested in technology and sex, the way that different generations seem to have sex and think about sex. It seemed interesting to juxtapose two generations and their experiences — sex and self-discovery and creating an identity.”

Mrs. Fletcher bears the hallmarks of the author’s hand. Perrotta is known for large ensembles, most recently evidenced by The Leftovers, his 2011 novel about the ways a Rapture-like event affects a small town. Along with Damon Lindelof (Lost), Perrotta helped adapt that book into HBO’s award-winning series of the same name. His fiction has a habit of making its way to the screen: Election (1998) and Little Children (2004) both became Academy Award–nominated films, the latter earning Perrotta a nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay. Perrotta writes flawed, sympathetic characters who come across in films or on TV, and, given the success of The Leftovers, it’s little surprise to learn that he’s already in talks with HBO to adapt Mrs. Fletcher into a half-hour show. “Perrotta has this way of telling intimate stories about big emotional ideas,” says Lindelof. “He does it without hanging it on, like, a murder mystery or some climactic resolution where there are life-and-death stakes. People are like, ‘Oh, have you read his new book? What’s it about?’ You find yourself describing it not by plot but by character, which is the true brilliance of what he does.”

But literature, not film, was the author’s first love. Perrotta, who now lives outside of Boston, was raised Roman Catholic in New Jersey, the son of working-class Italian parents, neither of whom went to college. His father worked for the post office and his mother as a secretary. Perrotta developed an interest in fiction early, reading Tolkien and penning short stories for his high school literary magazine. (“If you asked me on the first day of college what I wanted to do, I would have said, ‘I want to be a fiction writer,’ ” he says.) After graduating from Yale in 1983, he earned his M.A. at Syracuse University, where he studied with author Tobias Wolff, and went on to teach writing at Yale and Harvard, achieving mainstream renown following director Alexander Payne’s adaptation of Election (with Reese Witherspoon and Matthew Broderick). Recalling his parents’ accompanying him to a screening, he says, “That seemed very real to them. I think it was very comforting, although the movie itself was distressing, but the fact that Hollywood was involved seemed like a sign of real substance in the world.”

As in some of his earlier fiction — see Little Children and The Abstinence TeacherMrs. Fletcher is, at least in part, a rumination about sex. The novel is a terrifically fast and frequently funny read that serves as a forensic investigation into America’s browser-cache-clearing habits. “The rules of sex at the moment — you can do all sorts of wild things, but there are still boundaries. You can’t do it with your employee!” Perrotta says, referring to Eve’s hitting on Amanda, an embarrassing scene in which the protagonist’s attentions go unreturned. “Porn is pervasive and it affects people who don’t even know they’re being affected by it.” That certainly goes for Brendan, whose idea of heteronormative relations has been informed by his broadband connection and peer group. When he takes advantage of a girl at college — in typically porny fashion — she retaliates in a way that forces him to reassess himself. It’s one of Mrs. Fletcher’s most humbling moments. “Brendans are everywhere in our culture,” says the author. “They feel like the culture was made for them. He’s like the Trump sons. Brendan isn’t privileged in that way, but he’s got a clarity about the world and his place in it that a lot of my other characters don’t have. He’s disappointed to discover that the world doesn’t agree that he’s at the center of everything, which is a positive sign. This is the first time he’s experienced resistance. Like, not only are you not going to get what you want, but maybe you shouldn’t want what you want.”

Mrs. Fletcher
By Tom Perrotta
Scribner
320 pp

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