Light and funny, with an easy conversational style, Tom Perrotta’s novels make excellent summer reading.
His characters probably resemble and behave like people you know in real life — except behind closed doors, where they’re inclined to dabble in activities more adventuresome, even slightly taboo. Then again, for all you know, your real-life acquaintances do the same.
Perrotta’s previous novel, 2011’s “The Leftovers,” was an exception to his customary ordinariness. It’s about the weird ways people respond when 2 percent of the Earth’s population abruptly vanishes. This may be the book for which he’s best known, thanks to a well-received HBO series of the same title, which Perrotta co-created and co-wrote.
But in “Mrs. Fletcher,” he’s back to following regular people doing mostly regular things in a regular middle-class suburb.
Eve Fletcher is a 46-year-old divorcee who manages a senior center. Her only son, Brendan, just left for college. Both struggle to adjust to their new identities — empty nester, student — with mixed success.
Sex, inevitably, enters the picture. Eve develops a habit of watching internet porn. She makes an abrupt (and rejected) advance on one person. She gets involved with another in a relationship so inappropriate and unlikely it tests the reader’s credulity.
Brendan, meanwhile, finds his crude “bro” behavior more unwelcome at school than he’d expected. Callow and insensitive, Brendan is hard to like. But after he destroys a promising new relationship through a boneheaded move, readers may feel a twinge of sympathy. He doesn’t just lose the appealing potential girlfriend — he receives additional punishment so harsh it’s hard not to see it as an overreaction to Brendan’s sexist but not lastingly damaging blunder.
Brendan is desperately apologetic and basically well-meaning. Given today’s campus battles with actual sexual assault, this episode carries political implications I’m not sure Perrotta intended.
The narrative meanders, enlivened here and there with inventive scenes.
Eve invites a transgender woman to speak at the senior center, with unfortunate results. (The center’s next speaker talks about maple syrup.) Brendan attends a party where guests in their underwear wear lanyards proclaiming some perceived bodily flaw (muffin top, unibrow, man boobs).
As sections shift among different characters’ points of view, getting into the heads of not just Eve and Brendan but even minor characters, Perrotta demonstrates his keen ability to channel varying perspectives. His ear for dialogue, as always, is pitch-perfect.
Unfortunately, dramatic tension is minimal. People do this, and people do that. It’s wrapped up in a too tidy ending that, while not entirely unpredictable, is too disconnected from what has come before it.
But “Mrs. Fletcher” is light and pleasant reading, and sometimes on a summer day, while sitting outdoors with a cool drink, that’s all you need.
Katy Read is a writer for the Star Tribune.
By: Tom Perrotta.
Publisher: Scribner, 307 pages, $26.