Eve Fletcher is a divorced single mom whose only son has just gone off to his freshman year of college. As she struggles with empty nest syndrome, she finds herself addicted to internet smut, while simultaneously taking a class in gender politics taught by a transgender woman. Her son, Brendan, is one of those bro-culture jock-jerks who thinks college is all about alcohol, sex, and parties. He’s quickly finding that his glory days of high school don’t work so well in his favor in the new environment.
So. Tom Perrotta. He writes wonderful books…but they always tend to also make me very, very uncomfortable. This is no exception. So much is tackled here, as you can tell from the description. It is all so very relevant to current society – from discussion of rape-culture and police brutality, to privilege and token attempts to act politically correct. There is so much packed in this one short book that it would be impossible to try to unpack it all here.
A couple things struck me in particular. Eve is older than me, but by less than a decade, and it was surprising to realize I was closer to her in age than some of the other characters. It seemed like I should connect with her more than anyone else, but I didn’t. Her story was one of personal and sexual awakening, hampered by a skewed perspective caused by her nightly internet forays, and I just couldn’t relate to any of it. I also found it particularly irksome the way she coddled her overly spoiled child and sacrificed herself to him as entirely as if he were a god. I’m all for making sacrifices for kids and nurturing them and all, but if it gets to the point where you can’t even ask them to stop doing Very Bad Things in your own house, something has gone wrong.
Brendan is only a year or two older than my oldest son, and because of his mother’s coddling, has no concept of respect, social conscience, or self-awareness. High school was his environment all the way, and he literally cannot understand when people don’t continue to worship him from all sides. He is bro-culture to the max – alcohol, drugs, video games, never studying, sex with whoever whenever – and bro-culture makes me uncomfortable. All the hangovers, all the jokes about sexual violence, all the casual usage of nasty names for women, all the teasing “Oh we can’t say that because body image” etc. It makes me particular uncomfortable because I can see some of these things in the anecdotes my boys bring home from school. Jason and I try to discuss why these things aren’t okay – unlike Eve, who just proclaims that boys will be boys and there’s nothing she can do – but even our discussions don’t go far. Bro-culture is sticky and messy and pervasive, and this book addresses it a lot. That gets quite uncomfortable at times.
But that’s the thing about Perrotta – so much of what he writes makes me uncomfortable, angry, depressed, and many other negative emotions, and yet his books are wonderful. They are addressing issues that need to be addressed. Yes, we need to change things like the culture of toxic masculinity prevalent in high schools and colleges (and beyond). Yes, we need to be honest about how internet-smut is changing people’s perspectives. Yes, we need to address passive parenting and transphobia and bullying and sexual harassment and privilege and all the rest. So I keep reading, push past my discomfort, and praise Perrotta’s books for what they accomplish so well. We should be uncomfortable with the things that are wrong in our society. Discomfort is the seed that leads to activism, and activism eventually leads to change.