An Empty Nester's Transformation In 'Mrs. Fletcher'

Jul 29, 2017
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DON GONYEA, HOST:

Coming of age stories offer rich territory for authors to mine. A new novel, "Mrs. Fletcher," by Tom Perrotta does that with a twist or two. There's a young man heading off to college. But it's his mom, Eve Fletcher of the title, who, as a divorced empty-nester, really explores some uncharted depths. Tom Perrotta, welcome to the show.

TOM PERROTTA: Thank you, Don.

GONYEA: So I'd like you to read something. This is from the very beginning of the book. And it's the day that 18-year-old, Brendan, is heading off to school. Hey, that's a big day in any family - right? - except Brendan is still asleep. He's actually hung over because he was out drinking with his buddies his last night at home. So Mom, Eve Fletcher, has packed up the car on her own. I'll let you pick it up from there.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOOK, "MRS. FLETCHER")

PERROTTA: She didn't want to spoil their last morning together with petty nagging, even if he deserved it. Going out on a sour note would have been a disservice to both of them. When she was finished, she took a few pictures of the van with the back hatch open, the cargo area stuffed with luggage and plastic containers, a rolled-up rug and a lacrosse stick, an Xbox console and an oscillating fan, a minifridge and a milk crate full of emergency food plus a jumbo bag of Cool Ranch Doritos because they were his favorite.

She uploaded the least blurry photo to Facebook along with a status update that read, off to college - so happy for my amazing son Brendan. Then she inserted the obligatory emoticon and launched her message into space so her 221 friends would understand how she was feeling and could let her know that they liked it.

GONYEA: So we have the oscillating fan. We have the bag of Cool Ranch Doritos and the 221 Facebook friends. I love that detail. What does that tell us?

PERROTTA: That her world is - it's a small world. And I think part of the story of the book is that she wants to expand that circle of friends. And she really does, actually.

GONYEA: So where did this story begin in your own head? Was it with Eve Fletcher, or was it another character - another scene altogether?

PERROTTA: It really started with Eve. And I guess it started before that with my own life where the past five years or so, my wife and I have become empty nest parents. And I was just thinking about that as a new chapter in life. And you know, it's one thing for married people who have to sort of investigate what their marriage is like now that their kids are gone and this era of raising children is more or less over. But I think it's very different for someone like Eve who really is alone in the empty nest and really wants to do something to relieve that loneliness. And that is what drives this story.

GONYEA: I want to talk about Eve Fletcher kind of delving into the world of Internet porn, really for the first time in her life. She's 46 years old. She's single. And it was triggered by what she thinks is a random text from a wrong number. A text includes - we'll just call it a rather crude compliment that's not for radio here. But there's this clumsiness to her as she starts exploring things online. Tell us about what you were trying to capture there.

PERROTTA: Eve is in search of a new identity. And a possibility comes to her in the form of this crude text. And in the course of being offended by this particular term, which is an acronym that we won't use - but she starts to look it up and realizes that the text was crude but the word itself is a sort of a compliment. At a time when she's feeling maybe a little bit over the hill and sexually invisible, this word kind of makes her feel like, oh, there's sort of a place for a sexy older woman. And she starts, almost in spite of herself, going to this amateur porn site where women in their 30s and 40s are sharing their sex lives with the world. And as she does this, it kind of opens up her own awareness of sexual possibilities in her world.

GONYEA: And I love how she refers to her surfing the Internet as a habit, not an addiction. She's convinced herself of that.

PERROTTA: Yes (laughter). It sounds better that way.

GONYEA: So The Washington Post calls this the most pleasant novel about pornography you'll ever read. React to that.

PERROTTA: Well, you know, I think pleasant there was maybe used in a sort of double-edged way. But I do think that one of the things the book wants to say is that porn is just an enormous part of our culture. We don't talk about it a lot. It's a very private thing. Some people don't look at it at all, and yet I would argue that it affects them, too. I mean, it certainly has changed. You know, our sense of - that certain sexual practices are beyond the pale or suddenly everybody's doing this or - you know, I think that people's bodies look different. Younger people groom themselves differently because of the influence of porn. You know, I just think it's a pervasive part of the culture, and I wanted to treat it that way in this book.

GONYEA: You dive into just the everyday minutiae of ordinary lives. Sometimes, kind of big things happen. And sometimes, it's just mundane and we're inside their heads. But I guess the thing I take away from it is that everybody in the book screws up a little bit. It's life-changing but not life-destroying, and they just plow ahead.

PERROTTA: Yeah, you know - like, Brendan for instance, he can be a bit of a jerk. And he's very much sort of a good-looking frat boy. And I think there is this kind of feeling of dread that follows him around in the book because you just kind of do realize that he's the kind of guy who might well be capable of sexual assault or just an unwanted advance on a woman. And the book could have taken a darker turn there, and it didn't. And you know, Eve gets involved in some murky sexual situations herself. And again, they turn out to be more educational than traumatic. And I think the book is comic in that sense. It suggests that people take risks, and they make mistakes. But sometimes they learn from those things and can get more control over their lives and find their way to a happier version of themselves.

GONYEA: We've been talking to Tom Perrotta. His new book is "Mrs. Fletcher." Tom, thanks for joining us.

PERROTTA: Oh, thank you so much, Don. It's been a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.