With the beginning of the new semester only a few weeks away and my last summer course over, I treated myself to Tom Perrotta's latest book, Mrs. Fletcher. I have read the majority of his works, including his most known, The Leftovers (now an HBO series of the same name). My favorite of his works, The Abstinence Teacher, contemplated suburban perspectives on sex education and presented two, one secular and one religious. While Mrs. Fletcher returns to themes of sex and sexuality, its final message, I believe, is about the ways in which we need authentic human connection, especially in higher education.
Before I focus solely on the college connections, I’ll say that the majority of other reviews discuss the novel by focusing on its larger plot: a scathing look at how social media and online porn have affected suburban life. In her New York Times review of the book, Alexandra Alter states, “While ‘Mrs. Fletcher’ may sound, from a plot summary, like an R-rated comedy or the outline for a raunchy Judd Apatow movie, it is more melancholy than many of his earlier books.” Laura Miller, reviewing for the New Yorker, calls the central characters “a few souls blundering into a future whose contours they can never quite make out, looking for love and doing the best that they can.”
For we in higher education – students, faculty, staff, and administration – the book’s commentary on how college intersects with the need to find human connection proves quite engaging.
Eve Fletcher, the titular character, is an attractive woman in her late 40s. She is divorced and now faces an “empty nest” syndrome that could be potentially stereotypical, but Perrotta's writing once again rises above the banal. In Eve Fletcher’s case, life grows more interesting when her only child, Brendan, goes away to college. Worried that she may grow too isolated and lonely, she takes a class at the local community college called Gender and Society. This class introduces her to a transgendered professor, other students craving contact, and, interestingly, an opportunity to consider the ways in which heteronormativity has affected her behavior.
My own institution has several nontraditional students like Eve, and often their life experiences bring welcome additions to class discussion. Even when their generational expectations and understandings seem outdated, they are often willing to listen and think deeply about how new knowledge can change them. Just this summer, I had a retiring cardiologist in my graduate seminar. He was decades older than his fellow students, but cross-generational exchanges proved highly beneficial to all of us. This proves to be the case in Eve’s class – the other classroom participants draw her into a space that challenges her notion of self. As a result, she moves beyond searching for connection through online porn; instead, she finds herself out with people, realizing that human connection comes in many forms, all worthwhile.
The plot of Mrs. Fletcher vacillates between Eve’s college course and Brendan’s first semester at a large university, and the contrast proves quite telling. Brendan enters college planning to continue his “bro” persona. After all, it worked well in high school. He quickly finds resistance from multiple people, including his own roommate, who once seemed to be just like Brendan. But that roommate, Zack, realizes that Brendan has very little to offer him. Brendan’s own male entitlement, as Perrotta explains to Terry Gross in an interview, is “somehow resistant to all these pushes to change it.” Brendan lacks any kind of critical perspective, even when he is publicly shamed for his behavior. The book offers few explanations for this behavior: the porn he consumes makes him unable to respect women, he is still too immature to change, and college isn’t for everyone.
Brendan’s issues are highly relevant for ProF readers. Many of us work with undergraduate students who have difficulty transitioning from high school to college. Brendan’s inability to question his beliefs about body image or care about others different than he were frustrating to me, but savvy readers will hopefully notice that his choice not to seek human connection, in any genuine form, determines his fate. For example, when most of his acquaintances are too busy to help him after he is publicly shamed, he reaches out to Sanjay, a student he previously ridiculed. Sanjay agrees to help him, but Brendan does not mature from this interchange. Rather, he flees to the comfort of old high school ways, never really coming to terms with how he could potentially grow from interacting with different people.
What can we do in our classrooms, with our advisees, or with those classmates like Brendan? Like Perrotta, I cannot find a simple answer for the Brendans on our campuses. In a time when some find higher education to be problematic and others think colleges are places of liberal indoctrination, we who have other perspectives may wonder if we can reach students like Brendan who may seem, as one reviewer says, “basically well-meaning.”
While Perrotta’s Mrs. Fletcher may not give us great insight on how to make a difference in all our students’ lives – or how to reach those “bros” in the back row – building classroom spaces that open up dialogue and require cross-boundary exchanges could potentially help. (Mary Louise Pratt discusses this pedagogical practice in her important essay, “Arts of the Contact Zone.”) This is something I’ll revisit as I think about making human connections with my students this fall semester.