EVE FLETCHER IS a single mother, by divorce, raising her son Brendan, a Haddington High lacrosse jock headed to his first semester of college at Berkshire State University, known as a party school. Eve hopes to have a lovely last day with her son before she hauls Brendan and his possessions away in the minivan, realizing that “the important people in her life rarely acted the way they were supposed to” on big days.

To say that Tom Perrotta writes about relationships and sex in suburban middle-class America would be an understatement. His novels and short stories are full of lonely people having sex with lonely people until they fall in love, or not. This is not porn, although online porn plays a role in Mrs. Fletcher. These are people figuring out who they are. What is identity? What community or communities do they belong to? What is a community?

The narrative includes two distinct points of view. The first chapter and alternating chapters about Eve’s experiences are narrated in the third person. She is at the beginning of a mid-life awakening, the fabulous 40s. She does not carelessly discard her past, but neither does her past cripple her or freeze her in place. Through her eyes, Brendan might appear insensitive and unlikable to the reader. He broke up with his high school sweetheart, Becca, through text message. He didn’t help pack the van because he was out late drinking the night before. Eve is disappointed with her son, but she loves him.

In the second and alternating chapters, Brendan’s experience is narrated in the first person. The teenager’s story is a bildungsroman, which could stand alone as YA fiction, and which shows how differently he perceives his and Eve’s circumstances. The problem for Brendan and Eve is that they don’t communicate their thoughts and feelings about each other to each other. At least not at the start of the narrative. By the end, both characters arrive at unexpected realizations about themselves. Eve and Brendan grow as mother and son, and as human beings. One would expect that a young man of college age would learn things about himself and others, but the beauty of this book is that Eve Fletcher, in her middle age, learns just as much, rising out of the ashes of single parenthood.

Eve’s community of friends is splintered. Several women are longer divorced than she is. One empty-nester married couple tries to figure out whether they have any romance left. After Eve receives an anonymous text that includes the term MILF and a request for pics, she Googles the term and ends up on porn sites, something she had never done before. MILFateria.com, with a mix of amateur videos in a variety of categories, becomes a pastime.

Interpersonal communication is difficult to begin with, but the difficulty is compounded when the other person doesn’t even know precisely who they are. Socrates and Plato had a field day with this kind of stuff, the knowledge of the self. Human personality is a public relations campaign mixed with defense mechanisms and fraught with identity crisis after identity crisis.

Mrs. Fletcher explores how a person might change after exposure to different worldviews and new people outside their comfort zone, and through the continual search for self. Perrotta filters into the story notions of the self proposed by Sigmund Freud, Louis Althusser, Michel Foucault, and Judith Butler, without bogging down the plot or ever mentioning these thinkers by name. Much of this intellectual material is tested through the depiction of one character, Margo Fairchild, who is arguably as central as Brandon and Eve.

Eve embraces the empty nest. She loves her son, but now that Brendan is away at college she enjoys the freedom of not tending to his every need. Eve enrolls in a sexuality class at Eastern Community College titled “Gender and Society: A Critical Perspective.” The class wasn’t her first choice, but other classes filled up quickly. Eve just wanted to get back into a college classroom discussion with other adults with different perspectives. This fortuitous class enrollment fuels the plot for much of the novel.

During the first class, the instructor, Dr. Margo Fairchild, announces, “[T]here’s nothing simple about gender. Nothing natural. It’s an ideological minefield that we walk through every minute of every day.” Eve doesn’t realize until after class, in a discussion with another classmate — the bar owner Barry — that the instructor is transgender. Barry tells Eve that Margo Fairchild, PhD adjunct professor, was formerly Mark Fairchild, a popular college basketball player.

The novel is full of identity lessons, but Perrotta’s approach is pragmatic. Transgender issues are part of American society and will continue to be at the center of political discussions and casual conversations for many years to come. Two recent legislative bills in North Carolina and Texas were obvious attacks on transgender people.

In March 2016, North Carolina passed HB2, the Public Facilities Privacy & Security Act, which effectively ruled that people may only use a public bathroom associated with their birth certificate gender and not their gender identity. Soon after, the federal government sued the state of North Carolina, and one year later portions of the bill were repealed. Early in 2017, SB6, known as the Bathroom Bill, was introduced in Texas. After much debate, neither the Texas Senate version nor the Texas House version passed.

In a YouTube video, comedian Trae Crowder, who calls himself a Liberal Redneck, describes those who attack the transgender population and these bathroom issues as people who “lack the capacity to understand,” and despite their bigotry Crowder believes the world will change and even the bigot’s kids will “grow up in a world that is a little more open-minded.” Crowder finishes with “that’s happening whether you [bigots] like it or not.” Perrotta explores the implications of this generational clash in the novel, focusing on elderly, the care they require, and their political views, which are often based on institutional and cultural bigotry.

Eve loves her job as the executive director of the Haddington Senior Center, which depends on public funding from the city of Haddington. Still, she often witnesses patrons die from disease and age, embarrassing moments with adult diapers, and excruciating scenes of senility robbing the mind of cheerful women and men who had been playing bingo and singing just a few months earlier. Eve cries about the dementia and the death, and serves the elderly as best she can while providing a safe community space for all. As the elderly die, so too do their generation’s ideologies.

Eve respects the older folks and tolerates their occasional narrow-mindedness, but their elderly brand of bigotry is exposed when Eve invites Dr. Margo Fairchild as a guest speaker to the Haddington Senior Center. In a poignant scene midway through the novel, Fairchild describes to the group her life as a boy, her athletic accomplishments, and her feelings as a girl. During the question-and-answer portion, one woman asks, “What bathroom do you use?” An elderly man who identifies himself as a high school basketball coach whose team had played against Fairchild compliments Mark, Margo’s birth name, as an excellent athlete, but goes on to ask, “What the hell happened? Why would you do this to yourself?” In response, Fairchild essentially explains the insight of Judith Butler, the preeminent living scholar of gender and identity, that gender roles are socially constructed. These prescribed roles result from cultural and institutional pressures. But the elderly basketball coach doesn’t understand; in fact, he doesn’t really listen.

Another important and sensitive subject Perrotta tackles is autism. Eve’s ex, Ted, had left her for Bethany, a younger woman. Ted and Bethany had an autistic son, Jon-Jon, with severe behavioral problems. While Eve’s initial thought is that karma is a bitch, she eventually gains respect for Ted and Bethany as she sees them spend all their energy and love to help Jon-Jon. Brendan also gains respect for his father. The first week on campus, Brendan accidentally finds himself at an autism awareness table where a coed named Amber passes out information. He is immediately attracted to her and attends an autism support group, even though he has no direct responsibility for his younger stepbrother. He’s there for the girl, but the event is a catalyst that motivates Brendan to become more aware and respectful of others, particularly women.

Brendan struggles at college. His classes aren’t going well. He must come to terms with ideas he never encountered in high school. He hears unfamiliar words like “cis-gender,” “heteronormative,” “dysphoria,” and “performativity.” One of his composition class prompts is: “What Does White Privilege Mean to Me?”

Brendan is an insensitive jock who quickly learns that his worldview is neither dominant nor constructive. He expected to get laid every night at college. His roommate Zack is like his twin brother, and together they chase girls with no luck. There are homoerotic moments that never cross into homosexual experiences. After a brief bromance, Zack disappears to date a coed. The problem with Brendan is that he thinks with his dick and talks like a dick to women. His high school girlfriend Becca doesn’t seem to mind, but college coed Amber won’t tolerate any of the disrespectful rhetoric. After Amber and Brendan watch a documentary film on the oppression of women, he misspeaks. His sensitivity advances, but he is also publicly humiliated and shamed, and the reader must decide whether the shaming is justified or excessive.

Mrs. Fletcher is an intelligent novel that weaves together all the old issues about relationships along with contemporary issues of identity. Perrotta sprinkles in enough pop culture and current events to give the novel a truly 2017 feel. One character binges on Netflix when she is ill. Another can’t stop looking at Facebook. There is a Michael Brown protest on campus. Yet all these cultural references feel natural, not wedged in.

Perrotta expertly explores sexual identity, gender, pornography, and sex. This is a novel about overcoming ignorance. It urges readers to take advantage of opportunities for self-analysis and enlightenment. We must listen to each other’s stories.

¤

Ramsey Mathews teaches poetry, composition, and literature at Florida State University. His poetry has appeared in Boaat Journal, San Pedro River Review, and Sagebrush Review.