In a 2008 episode of the sitcom "30 Rock," the fictional NBC executive Jack Donaghy (played by Alec Baldwin) proudly promotes the season finale of his new hit reality show, MILF Island. In the shamelessly tawdry program ("25 super-hot moms, 50 eighth-grade boys, no rules"), middle-aged women contestants are kicked off one by one with the show's signature catchphrase: "We no longer want to hit that. Get off MILF Island!" In a culture that objectifies women, older women aren't treated with any more respect than their younger counterparts; they're all equally disposable.
For those unfamiliar with the word "MILF," it stands for — well, something that can't be printed here, so let's just go with "mother to whom I would enjoy making love." Think Mrs. Robinson in The Graduate, or Stacy's mom from the hit song by Fountains of Wayne. It's also a term that a stranger uses to describe divorced 46-year-old Eve Fletcher, the protagonist of Tom Perrotta's raunchy, hilarious and unexpectedly sweet novel, Mrs. Fletcher.
Perrotta's novel begins with a moment of crushing disappointment for Eve. She's packing her minivan in preparation for moving her teenage son, Brendan, to college, and she's hoping for some bonding time on the drive — but she's horrified to overhear him having sex with his girlfriend, talking to her in the dehumanizing way male porn actors often do to their on-screen partners.
The drive to school doesn't go well. Brendan sleeps most of the way there, which isn't entirely a surprise; his relationship with his mom has lately been marked by "exchanging the minimum daily requirement of information, mostly, on her son's side, in the form of grudging monosyllables and irritable grunts." Eve tries to navigate her new life alone with a steady diet of wine, Friends reruns and "way too much Facebook." ("It had been a lot easier to be a loser back in the days before social media," Eve thinks, "when the world wasn't quite so adept at rubbing it in your face, showing you all the fun you were missing out on in real time.")
The novel follows Eve and Brendan as they both make some questionable decisions. For his part, Brendan — "a big, friendly, fun-loving bro, a dude you'd totally want on your team or in your frat" — joins a support group for students with autistic loved ones (his young half-brother is on the spectrum), trying to impress a socially conscious young woman whom he likes. He ruins it, though, during a sexual encounter that the porn-addled Brendan suddenly turns rough and degrading.
Eve, meanwhile, becomes borderline-obsessed with MILF porn on the Internet after receiving a text message from an unknown number: "U r my MILF! Send me a naked pic!!" Later, she makes an inappropriate pass at a younger female employee of hers, and contemplates, briefly, a sexual encounter with a boy her son's age, whom she met in a community college night class.
Mrs. Fletcher is about much more than Internet porn, but it plays a huge role in the book — and Perrotta handles it beautifully, and with a refreshing frankness. (This is a gleefully explicit novel — if you're offended by profanity, you might want to avoid it; if you're offended by graphic descriptions of sex, you will probably spontaneously combust after the first few chapters.) It's not preachy, but it is realistic — porn has warped Brendan's idea of sex, but it helps liberate Eve.
Part of that, Eve realizes, is the escapism that porn can provide. "When it was good, you could forget you were watching porn and accept it ... [as] a world where everyone secretly wanted the same thing, and no one failed to get it." For Eve, a woman not overly comfortable with exploring her desires, it proves to be valuable, a weird kind of revelation.
Perrotta is extraordinarily gifted at capturing the relationship between Eve and her son, who finds little to like in college besides drinking, smoking weed and playing video games. (Perrotta's take on modern-day, ultra-woke college culture is consistently biting and hilarious. As Brendan surveys the student clubs he could join, he marvels, "You could ride horses, row crew, play rugby, boycott Israel, learn to juggle or knit.")
Mrs. Fletcher isn't the first book by Perrotta to mix dark humor with serious issues; he's done so before in novels like Election and Little Children. But his latest might just be his best — it's a stunning and audacious book, and Perrotta never lets his characters take the easy way out. Uncompromisingly obscene but somehow still kind-hearted, Mrs. Fletcher is one for the ages.