The joy and per­ils of midlife sex

In Tom Per­rotta’s new novel ‘Mrs. Fletcher,’ an empty nester dis­cov­ers sex­ual free­doms.

Los Angeles Times - - ARTS & BOOKS - By Kate Tut­tle

When Tom Per­rotta and his wife, Mary Gran­field, sent their sec­ond child off to col­lege two years ago, they found them­selves nav­i­gat­ing a brand new life stage. “Par­ent­ing be­comes this ca­reer,” he says. “You’re in the thick of it, and then sud­denly it’s — not quite over, but it doesn’t take up a huge amount of space any­more, and there’s a sense of re­assess­ment of one’s adult life.”

This tran­si­tion is at the heart of his new novel, “Mrs. Fletcher.” One scene de­scribes women whose friend­ship be­gan “on the side­lines at soc­cer games, at school plays and award cer­e­monies and grad­u­a­tions, a whole era of their lives — it had felt so per­ma­nent while it was hap­pen­ing — sud­denly be­hind them. Just a chap­ter, and not the story it­self.”

Once chil­dren grow up and leave home, the book makes clear, whole other as­pects of life re­assert them­selves. “I was talk­ing with a friend about it once, about be­ing an empty nester,” Per­rotta says. “So my friend looked at me and said, ‘Yeah, the pres­sure to have sex is enor­mous!’ ”

Per­rotta laughs at the mem­ory. We’re talk­ing by phone; Per­rotta is in his house in a tree-lined Bos­ton sub­urb, the kind of place in which most of his books are set. As in “Elec­tion” and “Lit­tle Chil­dren,” the novel ex­plores the ways or­di­nary peo­ple try to make sense of their un­ruly de­sires. Here, the epony­mous main char­ac­ter, Eve, is a sin­gle mother who sends her only child off to col­lege and finds her­self in the midst of a per­sonal (and sex­ual) revo­lu­tion.

Eve takes a com­mu­nity col­lege course on gen­der and sex­u­al­ity and meets a di­verse and en­tic­ing crop of new friends. “Eve ac­tu­ally ends up hav­ing the col­lege ex­pe­ri­ence that she’s hop­ing her son will have,” Per­rotta says. “She meets new peo­ple. She’s con­fronted with ideas that she hasn’t re­ally ex­plored, and she’s ex­cited by what she finds. She takes chances that she wouldn’t have taken any other time in her life.” That in­cludes watch­ing pornog­ra­phy on­line.

Her son, Bren­dan, a for­mer high school jock, finds col­lege life un­set­tling, es­pe­cially when he runs afoul of new ex­pec­ta­tions around con­sent and sex­ual jus­tice. “I think young men like Bren­dan, who used to feel like the world was kind of de­signed for their plea­sure, are dis­cov­er­ing that peo­ple are push­ing back against it,” Per­rotta says. That push­back, de­liv­ered by a fe­male class­mate, sends Bren­dan back home to live with his mother just as she’s

learning to en­joy her new free­dom.

“Bren­dan isn’t par­tic­u­larly lik­able,” he ad­mits. “

I wasn’t think­ing about Trump at the time that I was writ­ing it. I was re­ally on the home stretch of the book when Trump emerged as the Repub­li­can can­di­date,” he continues. “But be­cause I was think­ing so much about gen­der and the dif­fer­ent re­al­i­ties that men and women some­times live in, the idea of hav­ing two peo­ple in this house, one of whom is a wo­man who in some ways thinks of her­self as fem­i­nist, and a boy or man who is very com­fort­able with this tra­di­tional idea of male priv­i­lege, that did seem to me like an in­ter­est­ing Amer­i­can mi­cro­cosm.”

Two ideas came to­gether as he was writ­ing, Per­rotta says. “One was that sense of midlife rein­ven­tion, and the other was that I had been think­ing a lot about the way porn has changed the way Amer­i­cans have sex.” Peo­ple in Bren­dan’s gen­er­a­tion, Per­rotta points out, “have grown up in a heav­ily porn-in­flu­enced en­vi­ron­ment. But I think any­body now who is out in the dat­ing world is deal­ing with all sorts of changes wrought by tech­nol­ogy: One of them is In­ter­net porn, and the other is all these dat­ing apps.”

It’s a rapid gen­er­a­tional change that fas­ci­nated Per­rotta. “I feel like my sex­ual ex­pe­ri­ences are noth­ing like my par­ents’, and my kids’ sex­ual ex­pe­ri­ences dif­fer from mine in so many ways as well,” he said. For mid­dle-aged par­ents of col­legeaged off­spring, he added, it can all feel un­set­tling. “Peo­ple aren’t re­ally sure what’s going on out there. Some peo­ple take it in stride, and some peo­ple seem hor­ri­fied by the thought of it.”

For Eve, the in­tro­duc­tion to porn be­gins with a sala­cious text from a num­ber she doesn’t rec­og­nize, a se­cret ad­mirer who calls her an acro­nym for a sexy mom.

“Eve’s at a point in her life where she’s no longer sure what her iden­tity is. She’s feel­ing adrift,” Per­rotta says. “This word, this [sexy mom] la­bel, gets pinned on her. It sud­denly be­comes a tem­po­rary iden­tity that al­lows her to move more con­fi­dently in the world. It sort of eroti­cizes the world, and gives her sex­u­al­ity back to her.”

“There was a bill­board in L.A. that you’d see com­ing out of the air­port” — Per­rotta split his time be­tween Los An­ge­les and the East Coast dur­ing his HBO series “The Leftovers” — “it was some­thing like, ‘Mercedes I’d Like to…’ I can’t re­mem­ber what the [last word] was!” he says with a laugh. And, he adds, “If you go into the world of porn, it’s like one of the most preva­lent cat­e­gories. Porn di­vides sex­u­al­ity into a mil­lion cat­e­gories, and that’s a re­ally im­por­tant one, a very pop­u­lar one.”

Per­rotta, who grew up in a Catholic New Jersey neigh­bor­hood, writes of pornog­ra­phy with glee­ful cu­rios­ity. “I re­mem­ber [porn] had that pow­er­ful for­bid­den qual­ity, and it was sort of mes­mer­iz­ing to me,” he says. “I got to col­lege, and there was a re­ally sort of strong cri­tique that felt porn was ex­ploitive to women and de­grad­ing and kind of a dirty eco­nomic sys­tem. And I ac­cepted that, and I didn’t look at it.” Then came the In­ter­net. “Porn was avail­able on­line, and some part of me was like, ‘Hey, let’s see what that is!’ ”

For a writer, he adds, it was amaz­ing. “It just seemed like all this hu­man in­for­ma­tion,” he says. And for his char­ac­ter, Eve, watch­ing porn is a “break­through. Af­ter that the world starts to be­come very erotic. She starts to sense the pos­si­bil­ity of all these sce­nar­ios that she would never have even no­ticed be­fore.”

Per­rotta, whose “The Leftovers” ran for three sea­sons, is in talks to adapt “Mrs. Fletcher.”

“One of the rea­sons I wanted to go into TV was that I was feel­ing that I was spend­ing a lit­tle too much time in my room. And I got what I wished for. I was part of a team; I had a work­place to go to.” Col­lab­o­rat­ing with “Leftovers” series co-cre­ator Da­mon Lin­de­lof and fel­low writ­ers like Pa­trick Somerville was “ex­hil­a­rat­ing and also hum­bling,” Per­rotta says. Af­ter his time with the show ended, he adds, “It took a while to re­cap­ture the rhythms of my quiet life.”

From his break­through comic novel “Elec­tion” through the HBO adap­ta­tion of “The Leftovers” and now “Mrs. Fletcher,” Per­rotta has be­come our most re­li­able chron­i­cler of the con­tem­po­rary Amer­i­can mar­riage. “I think that gen­der has be­come one of the rev­o­lu­tions of our life­time,” he says. “I’ve been in­ter­ested in the break­down of mas­culin­ity, the loss of con­fi­dence that men have had in who they are and where they be­long.”

Still, as mem­o­rable as his male char­ac­ters can be, it’s in women that he finds the most in­spi­ra­tion. “I’ve been re­ally fas­ci­nated with women of my gen­er­a­tion and the ways that they’ve nav­i­gated — not the first fem­i­nist gen­er­a­tion, but they were the first gen­er­a­tion where fem­i­nism was re­ally en­trenched. It’s been in­ter­est­ing to watch their lives un­fold.”

“I know as a writer it’s dan­ger­ous some­times to try and write out­side of your own iden­tity,” he ad­mits. “It’s what I’ve been do­ing for a long time. I write women char­ac­ters. I just need to find a way in so that I feel com­fort­able with my imag­in­ing a char­ac­ter and then it’s up to a reader to de­cide if that char­ac­ter feels real or not.”

Ben King HBO

TOM PER­ROTTA’S writ­ing in­volved two ideas, “midlife rein­ven­tion and ... the way porn has changed the way Amer­i­cans have sex.”

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