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Onyx reviews: Mrs. Fletcher by Tom Perrotta

Reviewed by Bev Vincent, 12/30/2017

The title might make readers gradually think of Mrs. Robinson and The Graduate, but Eve Fletcher's last name sounds a lot like the word "lecher," and there is a great deal of sex in Tom Perrotta's seventh novel.

The story starts at a time of transition for Eve. She is forty-six, divorced for seven years after her husband left her for someone he met on Craigslist, and about to embark on a new phase in her life when her only child, Brendan, goes away to university. 

Her main source of fulfillment is her job: she is the director of an active seniors center. She is looking forward to the empty nest, hoping that the change will give her the chance to shake up her staid life. She enrolls in a class at the community college and tries out meme recommendations for single women, including dining alone.

The reality of her experience is somewhat different from the fantasy. She is bored and lonely, but not lonely enough to settle for someone who would represent more of the same of what she's been through in the past. She's in search of new experiences. The college course, Gender and Society, opens her eyes to the vast sexual spectrum, but it is an anonymous text message that sends her down a rabbit hole. The text calls her a MILF, and even Eve would agree that she looks pretty good for her age. She understands the difference between that acronym and the term "cougar." The latter is descriptive of a person's actions, whereas the appellation MILF is external: it depends on someone else's opinion of her appearance.

Her bedtime ritual initially involves paging through Facebook posts to see what everyone else in her life is up to, be she ends up exploring the shockingly diverse world of MILF porn. She becomes something of an internet porn addict, embarrassed by her behavior but unable to resist its pull. She is a discerning consumer, though. She prefers videos where the involved parties (usually two, but not always) perform the seduction ritual rather than those that launch straight into the action. She studies these scenes to see how she might apply them in her own life.

The teacher of her college course is a former basketball player who has transitioned from Mike to Morgan. Her classmates include a pushy, boorish man who doesn't know how to take no for an answer and a winsome young man who went to high school with her son. The classroom discussions and her porn experience encourage Eve to be more courageous than she might normally have been. She wants to be more adventurous and brave, not restricted by self-pity or self doubt. However, relaxing her established boundaries has disastrous consequences, especially when she behaves inappropriately with a co-worker

Eve's story is told in third person, as are the perspectives of several other characters, who have their own stories to tell, their own lonely lives to display and explore. First person is reserved for the book's least likeable character, Eve's son Brendan. On the day he leaves for university, Eve overhears him behaving disrespectfully and despicably toward his on-again/off-again girlfriend. She wants to give him a talk about his degrading behavior toward women on the way to campus, but Brendan is hung over and sullen.

Brendan is a dimwitted jock with a reputation for bullying who likes to post shirtless selfies and who thinks his main physical flaw is that his calves aren't big enough. He has chosen his school because of its reputation for parties, and his first semester is a shambles of drunkenness and neglect for his studies. He meets a young woman who is active in social and feminist issues and pretends to support her activism, but his true colors emerge again the first time they are alone together. A tender moment turns sour when he gets rough and foul-mouthed. The young woman is disappointed with him, and her disappointment ultimately manifests into a exercise in shaming that sends Brendan into a spiral. Ultimately, even his "dude bro" roommate Zach has an awakening, realizing he doesn't like the kind of guy he is when he and Brendan are together.

As Eve's loneliness pushes her into increasingly ill-advised behavior, Perrotta pulls his punches a little. What could have ended up as a psychologically catastrophic encounter turns into a near miss. Six months of regrettable actions and poor choices are absolved and the author ties the story up in a neat little bow at the end. The book explores such diverse subjects as autism, sexism, gender issues and feminism, but it's difficult to tell if any lessons were learned.

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