Tag Archives: tom perrotta

MRS. FLETCHER by Tom Perrotta

I like Tom Perrotta. I’ve read a bunch of his books and I like his take on suburbia and middle age. I even read his dystopia novel – as I told him once at BEA, if anyone could drag me into dystopia, it’s him. So I was psyched to read Mrs. Fletcher, his latest novel (out this August). It was top of my target list for BEA and happened to be the very first book I came across when I crossed the threshold of the show in May.

So I read Mrs. Fletcher this week on vacation, and it was… fine. Not great. It’s about Eve Fletcher, a 46-year old single divorced mom in an unnamed suburb whose life is empty when her son Brendan leaves for college. She discovers online porn, kisses a female coworker and takes a gender studies class from a transgendered woman. She becomes the subject of a few people’s lascivious texts and IRL advances, and in general wakes up from her single mom sexual stupor.

Brendan, meanwhile, arrives at college and discovers that his frat bro asshole ways aren’t going to cut it anymore. He’s selfish, unmotivated and immature and ultimately finds himself single and friendless.

That’s basically what happens. I feel like Tom Perrotta saw the attention that Transparent and Caitlyn Jenner were getting and thought “I should get on that trend”. There is a message in this book: that attraction of all kinds is OK (trans woman-straight man; older woman-younger man; woman-woman; frat boy-girl in wheelchair; the myriad permutations in porn; etc.) but it felt a bit simplistic and dated. Do we really need a novel in 2017 from one of our more insightful authors to tell us this?

Mrs. Fletcher is a fun and easy read but there isn’t much to it beyond that. Given that it came from the author who gave us The Leftovers and Election, I was a little disappointed.


THE LEFTOVERS by Tom Perrotta

0913_the-leftoversWhen I was at BEA last May, I learned that Tom Perrotta had a new book coming out this fall. Then I learned that it was a sort of dystopian novel, one that took on a more serious tone than his other books. I am a big Tom Perrotta fan (see review of The Abstinence Teacher here; I read Little Children, Joe College and The Wishbones before I started blogging), and not so much a dystopia fan, but I was intrigued. I waited in a long line with Nicole of Linus’ Blanket for a review copy (during which time Nicole ate Scientologist brownies that turned out to be totally safe, but that’s a different story) and the chance to meet Perrotta.

When we got to the front of the line, I said, “If there’s anyone who can get me into dystopia, it’s you.” He smiled and signed The Leftovers, and I just read it.

The Leftovers takes place in an unnamed (New York? Jersey?) suburb, a few years after the Sudden Disappearance. During the Sudden Disappearance, millions of people simply disappeared. Into thin air. While there are parallels, of course, to The Rapture, there was no pattern to the people who disappeared in the Sudden Disappearance. They weren’t all Christians, or even necessarily good people (one, for example, was a frat boy who secretly took videos of girls who he slept with in his room). Some families lost several people, while others lost none. The Leftovers is about the ramifications of the Sudden Disappearance on America, and particularly on the Garvey family of four, which remained intact but very disturbed after the event.

Laurie Garvey, the mom, ends up joining a cult called the Guilty Remnant, made up of people who are so distraught by the Sudden Disappearance that they renounce their families and all of their possessions, move into communal housing, wear all white, take a vow of silence, and take up smoking, to hasten their own deaths. Tom, the son, also joins a cult: he drops out of college to follow a man who claims to be able to heal the pain of the survivors through a simple hug, and who gains a huge following and starts taking on teenage wives whom he says will bear his children, saviors for a troubled world. Jill, the daughter, shaves her head and stops studying, and Kevin, the dad, runs for mayor and tries to keep some semblance of normalcy going even as he loses his loved ones, one by one.

We’re still in familiar Perrotta territory here – suburbia, comfortable if boring marriages with the occasional bout of infidelity, disaffected teenagers, and meaningless consumerism. But he has shaken things up with the Sudden Disappearance, making the things he usually pokes fun at seem even more trivial in light of the tragedy that has hit so many people so personally.

How would I react under similar circumstances? Would I be able to regroup and try to live my life again, or would I seek solace in one of the extreme methods favored by so many formerly “normal” people? Do these extreme groups really help with healing, or are they just a way to escape from what happened? These are the questions I found myself asking as I read The Leftovers. It’s a provocative book, and one that kind of eased me into the speculative fiction that I have avoided until now.

The Leftovers is definitely off the beaten Perrotta path, but it’s not so far afield as to be unrecognizable. I enjoyed this one more than I expected to. Will it open the door to new genres for me? Unlikely, but possible.

I do recommend it, especially if you’re already a Perrotta fan. I have read a few reviews by people who were new to Perrotta before The Leftovers – I wonder what they’d think of his earlier works now. It’s an odd but fascinating premise, and I think he did a good job with it.



Perrotta I just finished Tom Perrotta’s The Abstinence Teacher, which is my favorite so far of all of his books. (Back in 2006, I talked about the other Perrotta novels that I had read, including The Wishbones, Joe College, and Little Children.) The Abstinence Teacher, which takes on religious zeolatry, parenting, sex education and so much more, is a more ambitious novel than Perrotta’s others. It is written in that classic, sharply observant and mocking Perrotta style, but its scope is larger.

Ruth Ramsay is a divorced, 41 year-old sex ed teacher at fictional Stonewood Heights, an upper class suburb in an unnamed Northeastern state. She is targeted one day by some angry parents and the school board after she vaguely endorses oral sex to her students. This leads to several things – a campaign by the school board to introduce abstinence into the sex ed curriculum (over her objections); Ruth’s interactions with her daughter’s born-again Christian soccer coach, Tim, who leads the girls in prayer after a game; and Tim’s struggles with his church and his marriage.

Nothing escapes unscathed, or really, unobserved in this book. Perrotta has such a sharp eye that The Abstinence Teacher ultimately creates a finely detailed mosaic of our 2000s American existence, one that includes iPods and Priuses, gay marriage and drug addiction, Christian men’s retreats and Classmates.com.

Ruth and Tim are only the central characters in this rich, dimensional story. There’s also Ruth’s and Tim’s ex-spouses and their daughters, and her gay colleague Randall, and Pastor Dennis, the leader of Tim’s born-again church. Like Ruth and Tim, each of these characters is flawed, and infinitely interesting. The details in the book aren’t superfluous, but serve to flesh out these characters – literally – so that they become living, breathing people on Perrotta’s pages.

Who is good, and who is bad? In the end, Perrotta doesn’t really take a stand. He lampoons and humanizes both sides.

I liked this book quite a bit. It didn’t hurt that I listened to it on audio narrated by the sublime Campbell Scott. I wouldn’t complain if he narrated every single audiobook in the library. His deep voice, which verges on (but never reaches) flatness, was the perfect vehicle for Perrotta’s understate sarcasm and jabs. I especially enjoyed Scott’s narration of Pastor Dennis – just perfect.

I just read that The Abstinence Teacher, which was optioned back in 2007, may be made into a movie with Sandra Bullock and Steve Carell – which I find very odd casting.

Anyone else read this? Did you like it as much as I did?

Guest Review: THE ABSTINENCE TEACHER by Tom Perrotta

Sorry for the scarcity of posts this month. Back to back business trips have eaten up my free time, and I am still reading my current book. (Again, not a good sign). I look forward to posting more regularly very soon. In the meantime, here is a guest review of Tom Perrotta’s latest novel, The Abstinence Teacher, from EDIWTB regular Nancy West.

PerrottaI was in the minority of readers disappointed by Tom Perrotta’s last novel, Little Children. As a (then) stay-at-home mother of young children in an upscale suburb, I found his depiction of stay-at-home mothers of young children in an upscale suburb to be mildly offensive and generally inaccurate – on the whole, sort of a distasteful male fantasy of what our lives are really like (in a “So what do you little ladies do all day, anyway? Catfights, lesbian fantasies and extramarital affairs?”).

And yet I’m absolutely delighted with Perrotta’s brand-new novel, The Abstinence Teacher. This time he tells a story I’ve never heard before about characters who are believable, likeable and interesting.

The title character is Ruth Ramsey, a divorced mother of two teens who teaches health education at a high school in a New England suburb. Several months before the novel begins, Ruth has been raked over the coals by the rapidly growing Christian conservative church faction in her town, the implication being that many progressive intellectual communities are facing the gradual encroachment of the Christian right. But let me repeat the first six words of that sentence again: Several months before the novel begins. Kudos to Perrotta for being a novelist skilled enough to make a fulcrum event in a character’s life occur before the start of the novel; for a more plot-driven novelist like Jodi Picoult, the fight Ramsey has with the school board over her sex education program would be the focus of the novel. Perrotta uses this past event beautifully as a touchpoint in Ruth’s backstory but not as the main action of the novel, which instead hinges upon the aftermath of Ruth’s professional trauma.

Toward the beginning of the novel, Ruth attends her pre-teen daughter’s soccer game and is shocked to catch the born-again Christian coach, Tim Mason, leading the team in prayer. Appalled, Ruth drags her daughter out of the prayer circle – causing the conflicted child endless mortification – and begins threatening legal action against the soccer league. The praying dad is, after all, a member of the same group that nearly cost Ruth her job a year earlier when she made the humorously innocuous statement to a class of teens that “some people enjoy sex.” Following the soccer field confrontation, we learn what brought the coach-dad to this point in his life – he has an interesting and complex backstory and is no two-dimensional Ned Flanders – and we watch Ruth become increasingly discouraged by her attempts to hold on to a sense of her own moral righteousness, especially once both her daughters announce that they too might join the conservative Christian movement in their town.

What makes this novel so engaging is not the plot but the wonderfully interesting characters and the complicated decisions they make. But even more poignant than Ruth’s search for post-divorce romance or Tim’s ambivalence over his new marriage and relationship to his ex-wife and daughter is the governing theme of divorced parents in the suburbs trying to cope with exes, children and new families. As soccer parents ourselves, my husband and I have more than once seen the extremely emotional tableau of a kid in the midst of a Saturday morning game suddenly distracted by the parent he has not seen in several days appearing on the sidelines. At a kids’ baseball game we attended last summer, a grandfather good-naturedly teased a mom he didn’t know for hugging and kissing her 8-year-old son just before he took the pitcher’s mound. “No kissing the pitcher!” he joked. She smiled ruefully and said, “I haven’t seen the pitcher in five days.” Parents divorce, are separated from their children for days on end even while living in the same town, wrangle over rules, extracurricular activities and vacation plans with their exes, meet new spouses, start new families. This, more than anything in Perrotta’s Little Children, is a fascinating element of modern-day life in the suburbs. This time he has served up a new, interesting, engaging story.

Tom Perrotta’s Book Picks

TheweekI love The Week. If you haven’t heard of it before, it’s a weekly magazine that collects notable stories from the week’s newspapers, magazines, etc. into one place. So if you don’t have a lot of time — and who does? — you can read the best of the week’s offerings quickly, in one place.

The Week features book reviews as well — usually reprinting three major book reviews, a digest of recent book reviews in a particular category (memoir, sc-fi, debut novels, etc), and – my favorite – a spotlight on a particular author and his or her favorite books. A few weeks ago, they featured Tom Perrotta (whom I have blogged about here and here) and his favorite books.  An interesting list – The Great Gatsby, Our Kind, The Keep, Lost in the City – and the one I am most likely to read: This Boy’s Life, by Tobias Wolff.

This Boy’s Life is one of those books I have seen around but never really focused on. Here’s what Tom Perrotta said about it:

A contemporary masterpiece. Wolff has written an inspiring and heartbreaking story about the way we transform our lives through the lies we tell to and about ourselves.  A sly moral defense of fiction as a survival mechanism, this also happens to be one of the funniest books I’ve ever read.

From Amazon:

Fiction writer Tobias Wolff electrified critics with his scarifying 1989 memoir, which many deemed as notable for its artful structure and finely wrought prose as for the events it describes. The story is pretty grim: Teenaged Wolff moves with his divorced mother from Florida to Utah to Washington State to escape her violent boyfriend. When she remarries, Wolff finds himself in a bitter battle of wills with his abusive stepfather, a contest in which the two prove to be more evenly matched than might have been supposed. Deception, disguise, and illusion are the weapons the young man learns to employ as he grows up–not bad training for a writer-to-be. Somber though this tale of family strife is, it is also darkly funny and so artistically satisfying that most readers come away exhilarated rather than depressed.

The book, which was released in 1989, was made into a movie in 1993 starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert DeNiro.

Has anyone read This Boy’s Life? Worth it?


It’s one of my favorite times of year again – Oscar season – and I am in the throes of my annual push to see as many nominated movies and performances as I can before the awards are handed out. (If you don’t already know – Oscar Sunday is on February 25th).  I just saw two movies whose screenplays were adapted from books that I’ve read within the last few years: Notes on a Scandal, adapted from What Was She Thinking?, by Zoe Heller, and Little Children, adapted from the book of the same name by Tom Perrotta.  After the movies, I naturally I started reflecting on how faithfully the movies reflected the books, and which I liked better.

ScandalNotes on a Scandal is the story of Sheba, a teacher at a high school in London who has an affair with one of her students. Both the movie and the book are told through the perspective of an older, single, bitter teacher at the same school who befriends the pretty, 30-something Sheba and manipulates her into becoming her friend and confidante.  The older teacher is played masterfully by Judi Dench, and Sheba by Cate Blanchett, both of whom have been nominated for Oscars.  It’s a good movie – well-edited, suspenseful, and expertly written. There was nothing in the movie that was inconsistent with my memory of the book, and I felt that the adaptation worked hard to maintain the tone of an emotional thriller – like the book – as opposed to simply telling a salacious tale. I do think that if you’ve read the book beforehand, you’re at a bit of a disadvantage because you know in advance how much to trust the narrator and what her motives are, but that didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the movie.  Note: The adapted screenplay for Notes on a Scandal has been nominated for an Oscar. Advantage: Tie. Both are worth it.

Children_1 Little Children explores the unsatisfying lives of several suburban parents whose lives intersect one hot summer in a New Jersey (?) community.  Kate Winslet plays a young mother married to an older, emotionally remote husband with a daughter she views more as a burden than a joy.  She meets a stay-at home dad at the playground, flirts with him to annoy the catty moms she’s been hanging out with, and before long the two are having a full-fledged affair.  The movie’s about adults behaving badly and running from responsibility, while also touching on the mommy wars and the flawed utopia of the suburbs. I blogged many months ago about Tom Perrotta and his book Little Children, which is pretty closely followed by the screenplay.  There are a few plot elements that were changed from the book to the movie – notably, the ending – but for the most part, the screenplay adaptation is faithful. (This is not surprising, given that it was adapted by Perrotta himself). However, the book and movie are pretty different. While Perrotta’s subject in Little Children was serious, he gave it the lightly comic touch that characterize his other novels – wry and observant, but hardly tragic.  The movie, on the other hand, was almost like a fable – a tale of Everymen complete with a moral at the end.  It was much more heavyhanded than the novel – not surprising given the director (Todd Field, who also directed In the Bedroom – hardly a light story). Whatever humor could be found in the book – and there was a fair amount of it – was stripped away in the movie.  I also found the acting a bit stilted, and the movie was too long.  The book, on the other hand, was thoroughly enjoyable and a good read, even if you didn’t find any of the characters likable. Advantage: book.

Little Children has also been nominated for an Oscar for adapted screenplay, so this should be an interesting year for this category (one of my two favorites of the night, the other being original screenplay).  The other contenders are Borat, Children of Men, and The Departed. I haven’t started my official Oscar research this year, but I will predict that the award goes either to Borat or The Departed.

“Little Children” at Toronto Film Fest

Today, Entertainment Weekly‘s PopWatch blog offers this review of "Little Children," the movie based on Tom Perrotta’s book (and discussed by this blog here), which was recently screened at the Toronto Film Festival:

Little Children, Todd Field’s long awaited follow-up to In the Bedroom: The tale of parents growing increasingly more childlike the longer they hang around the kiddie pool, the movie guides us into very dark corners of the American suburban mythos (that schematic and well-trod Stepford nightmare-scape largely designed by phobic urbanites) and then guides us right back out again. It’s a tourist-package safari into the hungrier recesses of the human heart, and you’re back in time for dinner, easy-peasy. And a little facile-pacile too. But then, perhaps you’re the type who can accept Kate Winslet as “the ugly girl” in an adulterous love triangle. That’s tough to swallow, even if we’re talking about a knowingly skewed perspective filtered through Patrick Wilson’s incurably vapid “prom king,” a Mr. Mom with a gorgeous working wife (Jennifer Connelly, pictured) who casually emasculates him. Winslet, who’s supposed to be a mousy feminist fireplug-turned-housewife, is really ripe desire in the (amply displayed) flesh, and her voluptuous energy overwhelms the film. That’s not her fault: This film is dying to be overwhelmed by something, since it’s not quite sure what it’s saying. Sure is pretty though: The shots sway in a dreamy fever, Kubrick’s Lolita with a post-American Beauty coat of paint.

The Oeuvre of Tom Perrotta

OK, it’s still August. It’s hot outside, the city is deserted, and my summer beach vacation is still over a week away. So I am still entitled to write about beach reads, right? We’ll get to the serious stuff after Labor Day, when the leaves start turning and I stop making gazpacho for dinner.

Which brings me to… Tom Perrotta. His books are not fluff, yet they aren’t really serious literature either. I put them in the Screenplay Book category: while you’re reading one of his books, you can envision it as a movie, from the cast and the sets to the music on the soundtrack. They’re astute, dead-on accurate at times, perfectly paced, and most of all, enjoyable to read. Tom Perrotta is the kind of person I’d love to go have a beer with to talk about life, writing, and 80s music — in an interview, he once admitted to having a recurring dream that he is the person Bruce Springsteen pulls up on stage instead of Courteney Cox, but to play guitar with him instead of dancing. Definitely my kind of guy.

Perrotta may be best known for writing Election, which was adapted into a 1999 movie with Reese Witherspoon and Matthew Broderick (and which was nominated for a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar that year).  I’ve never read Election, but I wish I had — the movie was great, and I wish I had had the experience of reading the novel before I saw it.  The book is about an intensely fought battle for school government president at a New Jersey high school. It explores the tortuous experience of adolescence and high school while also offering biting commentary on image-obsessed, dirty-tricks-laden electoral politics.

Perrotta’s first novel, The Wishbones, is the story of a New Jersey 30-something who lives at home and plays in a wedding band. It was described by someone on Amazon as “a must read for anyone who came of age in the 80s.” I did read this one, and enjoyed it, especially the musical and pop culture references.  I also read Joe College, his third novel, about a blue-collar kid who ends up at Yale. It’s probably my least favorite of the Perrotta novels I’ve read, although Entertainment Weekly gave it an A- and had this to say about it:

The author of the novel Election has graduated from a suburban high school and gone to college — Yale, class of 1983 — and so has his working-class hero Danny. Though the plot contains little drama not found in an episode of 90210 (multiple love triangles, Mafia henchmen, drunken parties), Joe’s readers will revel in Perrotta’s gift for the telling detail. With Danny’s flashback to a battle of the bands, his hilarious, ecstatic dance to ”Pump It Up,” and an account of the highlighting strategies of undergrads, Perrotta transforms ’80s nostalgia into art.

My favorite Tom Perrotta book, though, is Little Children. I am sure that’s no coincidence, given that I read the book — which is about marriage, suburbia, middle-age, and the isolation of raising young children — shortly after becoming a mother. Janet Maslin of The New York Times wrote:

This soccer-mom “Bovary,” like the original, grasps the fundamental sadness of characters trapped in middle-class stability and yearning for adventures gone by. But Mr. Perrotta is too generous a writer to trivialize that. What distinguishes ”Little Children” from run-of-the-mill suburban satire is its knowing blend of slyness and compassion.

Here is another New York Times review of Little Children, and another from Salon.com

Little Children has stayed with me far longer after reading it than his earlier books, and not just because I read it more recently. Its themes are more universal and its characters more dimensional than those in his other books. I can’t wait for the movie.

P.S. If you’re interested, here’s a 20-question interview with Tom Perrotta.  Good answers about how he constructs his novels, what he thinks of critics, etc.

P.P.S. Perrotta also has a book of short stories that I’ve had my eye on for a long time: Bad Haircut: Stories of the Seventies — “ten tales covering a period from the fall of 1969 to the summer of 1980, that follow the revelations of his narrator, Buddy, from his days as an eight-year-old Cub Scout through his return home from the first year of college.” (Amazon.com).