If Tom Perrotta's new novel, Mrs. Fletcher, had a moral, it might be this: Thinking you can learn how to have a great sex life by watching porn is like thinking you can learn to be a great driver by playing Grand Theft Auto.
Perrotta, one of our best suburban satirists, likes to put seemingly ordinary people into unusual circumstances and show us what might happen. Two of his novels, Election and Little Children, have become Oscar-nominated movies, and his book The Leftovers was the basis for the Peabody Award-winning HBO series.
The ordinary people at the center of his new novel are Eve Fletcher and her son, Brendan. Both still nurse some emotional wounds from the departure of husband and father Ted, who left seven years before and has a new wife and young son.
But their lives have rolled along pretty well. As the novel opens, Eve is about to deliver Brendan to campus for his freshman year of college. She had envisioned a memorable day of mother-son bonding, but that's spoiled when his ex-girlfriend drops by and Eve overhears her giving him a very physical sendoff. It's not that Eve's surprised by the sex; she's shocked by the graphic, degrading language — like something out of a porn-film script — that she hears him use.
But she can't confront him. "Eve knew she was being a coward," Perrotta writes, "abdicating her parental responsibility, but letting him off the hook was pretty much a reflex at this point. The divorce had left her with a permanently guilty conscience that made it almost impossible for her to stay mad at her son or hold him accountable for his actions."
Instead, she leaves him at the dorm bonding with Zach, his goofy bro of a roommate (who's so much like Brendan that Eve muses they could be actual brothers), and heads home to deal with the empty nest.
At 46, Eve likes her job as director of the Haddington Senior Center, and she has lots of friends and occasional dates. Eager for something new in her life now that she's on her own, she has signed up to take a class at the local community college.
"Gender and Society: A Critical Perspective" is taught by a tall, elegant woman named Margo Fairchild, who, it turns out, used to be a local basketball star named Mark. As one student thinks, "It was one thing to have a professor tell you that gender was socially constructed, and another to hear it from a person who had actually done construction work."
Eve loves the class and the diverse group of students she meets there. But the real game-changer for her is a totally unexpected jolt that comes a few days after she drops Brendan off. It's a text from a number she doesn't recognize that wakes her up late one night: "U r my MILF! Send me a naked pic!" (It's followed by a request I can't quote in the newspaper.)
Eve is stunned. She's offended. She's mystified. And she's not sure what MILF means.
Looking it up leads her down the digital rabbit hole of porn sites. Pretty soon she's telling herself that no, she doesn't have an addiction, she just has a habit. But that habit does more than lead her to take her laptop to bed; it starts to shape her IRL behavior in ways she never imagined.
"Some of the videos Eve had stumbled upon skipped straight to the bedroom," Perrotta writes. "She needed to start at the beginning and observe the negotiation, to see how the small talk turned into flirting, to hear the magic words that got the reluctant one to accept the first kiss. ... When it was good, you could forget you were watching porn and accept it, if not as the truth, then at least as a glimpse of a better world than the one you lived in, a world where everyone secretly wanted the same thing, and no one failed to get it."
Eve begins to feel that what she wants is Amanda, her young assistant at the senior center (where the clients tut-tut over Amanda's tattoos). Back in her hometown after a stint in New York that ended when her boyfriend dumped her, Amanda has her own online-powered sex habit: the hookup site Tinder.
When one of the men she has had sex with courtesy of Tinder shows up in her yoga class, "it was just creepy to see him there, totally out of context, as if he were an actual human being, rather than a figment of her sexual imagination."
Meanwhile, Brendan is trying to adapt to college life. He's not exactly an ambitious student; when he finds himself eating alone in the cafeteria, he thinks, "I guess I could have taken a book from my backpack and pretended to study — that's what the other losers were doing — but it seemed like an a------ move, like Hey look at me reading a textbook!"
He does throw himself exuberantly into partying and drinking with Zach, who is indeed a lot like him — both are entitled jocks and casual bullies. Then Brendan meets Amber, a confident, athletic "social justice warrior." She's not his usual type at all, but soon she has him behaving in new ways. Until, that is, the first time they're intimate, and those porn-schooled behaviors play out — and Brendan pays a devastating price.
Mrs. Fletcher boasts Perrotta's well-honed blend of sharp social observation, deadpan humor and characters the reader cares about even when they behave badly. When he zeroes in on that bad behavior, he's not a Puritan clucking at dirty pictures; he's a writer exploring the effects of a force that can isolate human beings rather than bring them together.
Contact Colette Bancroft at email@example.com or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.