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'Election' author Tom Perrotta brings back an iconic character in 'Tracy Flick Can't Win'

The cover of "Tracy Flick Can't Win" by Tom Perrotta. (Courtesy)
The cover of "Tracy Flick Can't Win" by Tom Perrotta. (Courtesy)

Tom Perrotta wrote memorable female characters in his books “Little Children” and “Mrs. Fletcher” — but one leading lady stands out in his work: Tracy Flick.

First appearing in Perrotta’s 1998 novel “Election,” Tracy is an ambitious young woman whose path to winning her high school’s presidential election is jeopardized when one of her teachers, Mr. M., persuades a popular athlete to run against her.

In the 1999 movie adaptation, Tracy, portrayed by Reese Witherspoon, stamps out campaign buttons. Fast forward 23 years: The iconic Tracy is back in Perrotta’s newest novel. She’s now a high school assistant principal going after the top job. But as the title “Tracy Flick Can’t Win” implies, it’s another rough road for Tracy.

In the years since “Election” first hit shelves, Tracy has become a symbol of something beyond the book. To Perrotta, Tracy represents the first generation of girls whose feminist moms — and sometimes dads — raised them to believe they can achieve anything.

“Tracy — like a lot of women I taught when I was teaching college in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s — truly felt like there was going to be a woman president and it could possibly be me,” Perrotta said at a recent event at WBUR’s City Space. “I am focusing my life like a laser beam on achieving these goals. And I’m going to seize this power that’s now available to me.”

When the book and movie came out, stories about ambitious women hadn’t gone beyond the Lady Macbeth and Jane Austen characters — whose objectives are driven by men, Perrotta says. Mary Tyler Moore forged a path of her own using charm and vulnerability. In contrast, a young Tracy scared some of the adult men she encountered.

Back in 2016, people compared Hillary Clinton to Tracy during the former secretary of state’s presidential run. And it wasn’t a compliment. Like Clinton, Tracy has a quality many men find “threatening or unlikeable,” Perrotta says.

Writer Tom Perrotta. (Beowulf Sheehan)

At first, Perrotta felt flattered his character escaped the page and made her way into mainstream conversation. But people started projecting their abrasive, Machiavellian view of Tracy onto Clinton, he says.

Around the same time, feminist critics like Rebecca Traister pushed back against the opinion that Tracy — an intelligent 16-year-old girl driven to earn a college scholarship because her single mom can’t afford to send her — is unlikable or the villain of the story.

“I do think it has been both a little demoralizing to see my character become a kind of sexist trope, but then somewhat encouraging to see her redefined as the figure that she is,” Perrotta says, “which is an imperfect, determined, resilient, very ambitious young woman who may not be the most likable person in the world, but most ambitious people are actually probably not that likable.”

In the end, Tracy wins the election. The Tracy that readers meet years later in “Tracy Flick Can’t Win” displays the same ambition and need to succeed as she did initially — but also displays hurt and some more lovable, humanizing qualities.

Tracy’s sadness in the new book reflects something many middle-aged people experience, Perrotta says. In “Election,” Mr. M reacts to Tracy’s potential, which he sees as greater than his own. Now, readers get to see Tracy assume the same role as Mr. M — a good teacher who wanted more from his life.

“[Tracy’s] unlimited potential is now a very specific and limited reality,” Perrotta says. “Her expectations for herself were so high that even her perfectly successful and respectable life seems small to her.”

The title “Tracy Flick Can’t Win” speaks to how Tracy begins to recognize a pattern in her life, he says. Back in high school, her teacher’s vendetta against her felt personal. But looking back, her past experience feels systemic: Tracy is the most qualified person for the principal job at her school but still faces outside forces working against her.

Before he started creating iconic female characters, Perrotta wrote his first two books about young men in New Jersey. After getting pigeonholed and placed on the “lad lit” table at bookstores, he wanted to write bigger stories.

Writing “Election” required him to get into the minds of several characters, including women like Tracy, which made him worry he wasn’t skilled enough to do it justice. But ever since, women have approached Perrotta to say they were just like Tracy.

“What they meant was, ‘I was that girl with my hand in the air. I had big hopes and dreams and I worked really hard and maybe that was slightly ridiculous, but that was who I needed to be at that time,’” he says. “I think a lot of girls who were ambitious felt like they had to outshine the boys around them because it was hard to be taken seriously.”

Perrotta remembers attending college with optimistic women who believed their generation would reinvent marriage, career and family. While some things did change for the better, these women grew up to discover their utopian dream didn’t quite come true, he says.

“I think that redefinition of gender and family that has really marked my entire adult life has been my subject,” he says. “Feminism and the challenges it has posed to men, that cluster of issues is really at the heart of all of my work.”

Emiko Tamagawa produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Gabe BullardAllison Hagan adapted it for the web.

Book excerpt: ‘Tracy Flick Can’t Win’

By Tom Perrotta

Excerpted from Tracy Flick Can’t Win by Tom Perrotta. Copyright © 2022 by Tom Perrotta. Excerpted with permission by Scribner, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

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