The fact that Tom Perrotta knows his wheelhouse is both a blessing and a curse for his writing. In the past he’s pushed himself–writing novels about a religious debate over sexual education and another in the aftermath of what appears to have been the Rapture–but even when he pushes his boundaries, he stays on familiar ground. Discontented suburbias (usually in New Jersey) inhabited by man-children are his crutch. It’s what he knows, and he’s good at relating it.
It is also to his credit that Perrotta ages his characters along with him, which keeps things from totally stagnating. In his career, he’s gone from maladjusted college and high school kids to thirty-something parents who can’t get their lives together and now, with Mrs. Fletcher, he officially has a central character drowning in middle-aged discontent. Whether or not it will bother you that this character is repeatedly described as a MILF depends entirely on your outlook.
But because Perrotta isn’t as capable of change as he would like you to believe, the MILF-y Mrs. Fletcher actually shares the spotlight with her son, Brendan–an entitled douchebag who can’t adjust to
college a world that doesn’t revolve around him and cater to his every need. And while Perrotta picks up more and more narrators as the story unfolds, Brendan is the only one who ever speaks to the reader in the first person. The book may be named after his mother, but it’s Brendan Perrotta clearly relates to the most.
The problem, as I mentioned, is that Brendan is an insufferable creep. Perrotta hints at a theme about white male entitled-ness, but if you were to read the book and completely miss those references it would be understandable since they are few and never amount to much. It’s more like Perrotta is aware that this type of character has run his course in literature (thank god) and wants to look in on the joke. Except he doesn’t want Brendan to be a joke–not really. Perrotta’s affection for Brendan is palpable. He wants you to think of Brendan as a lovable screw-up. This reader definitely didn’t, and when Brendan’s storyline goes nowhere and he learns nothing, it infuriated me.
As for Mrs. Fletcher herself, her ennui is… not very captivating. In true Perrotta-character style, her existential crisis isn’t a path to enlightenment so much as a comically self-destructive derailment before she gets back on the tracks and resumes course. There’s nothing exciting, nothing thought-provoking, and nothing surprising if you’ve ever read a Perrotta book before. It’s like Little Children fifteen years later, but without the entrancing pathos or underlying dread. And while it’s great that Perrotta frequently writes female characters unlike many other white male writers (looking at you, Franzen), it really doesn’t help that they all feel the same. It’s as if they follow the same character arc: dissatisfied woman engages in self-destructive behavior (usually related to her love life), then is punished for it while the male characters get away with zero accountability. Hell, Little Children even features Madam Bovary as a plot device.
I like Perrotta, believe it or not. But his instincts hold him back. He’s written Mrs. Fletcher at least three times before–and better. It’s high time to explore new ground.