Fans of Tom Perrotta’s 1998 novel, Election (the inspiration for the beloved film starring Reese Witherspoon and Matthew Broderick), will be delighted that protagonist Tracy Flick gets another star turn. In Tracy Flick Can’t Win, the sharp-elbowed high schooler with visions of becoming the first female president is now a 40-ish, world-weary (albeit still driven) assistant principal of Green Meadow High School in suburban New Jersey, where she hopes to ascend to the top job after the principal announces his retirement. The darkly comic story that ensues is further proof of Perrotta’s mastery of the subtle complexities of American suburban life.
Tracy’s quest for what she believes is a well-deserved promotion plays out against the search for the first inductees into the high school’s Hall of Fame. The institution is the brainchild of Kyle Dorfman, an alumnus and Silicon Valley entrepreneur who’s returned to his hometown and now serves as president of the school board. Kyle believes the plan to honor some of the high school’s distinguished graduates will help dispel the “pall of mediocrity and depression hanging over the place.”
As the principal succession search plods on, fueling Tracy’s anxiety at the prospect that she’ll be passed over for a less-qualified candidate, the Hall of Fame committee dutifully sifts through the list of nominees. Perhaps the most obvious choice is Vito Falcone—a former football star who played briefly in the NFL—but the memory of his achievements on the field has been darkened by his alcoholism and the wreckage of three failed marriages. Several of the other candidates, among them a local car dealer and an obscure novelist, possess even more dubious backstories.
Perrotta expertly plumbs the depths of his characters’ lives and loves from multiple points of view, sympathetically assessing their achievements and regrets at falling short of their own expectations and those of the people around them. At the center of the story, of course, is Tracy, whose dream of a life at the pinnacle of American politics vanished long ago in the face of familial duty.
With a light touch, Perrotta raises thoughtful questions about the true measure of success and how we judge what counts as a meaningful life. By the time the Hall of Fame induction ceremony arrives, he has skillfully laid the foundation for the shocking climax of this fast-moving novel. Just as in real life, there are winners and losers, but as he reminds us in this deceptively simple but memorable story, assigning them to their respective categories may not be as easy as it might appear.