Election by Tom Perotta
I’ve been thinking about the nineties lately. I think I might be getting old, a concern that is in no way allayed by the amount of nineties music currently in play on classic rock stations. Also not helpful: up until recently, I was under the impression that everyone in my immediate age group had seen Election. I was disabused of this notion by several of my coworkers, one of which, when asked why in god’s name he hadn’t seen it, responded with “is that the one with Reese Witherspoon? I don’t really like Reese Witherspoon.”
I was, to put it mildly, completely stunned. Election is the reason people don’t like Reese Witherspoon, for heaven’s sake. I don’t actually know that you’re allowed to dislike her without having seen it. Furthermore, I honest to god don’t know how anyone manages to navigate the current political conversation without knowledge of the film. What did they think when people compared Hillary Clinton to Tracy Flick in 2008? Did they just assume she was some random politico they hadn’t heard of?
I digress. The point is, Election was a fucking seminal film to my generation. But embarrassingly enough, I hadn’t read the source material until I found it on sale for $3.99 on the remainders table at my local bookstore (for those of you who live in Boston: I can’t recommend the Brookline Booksmith enough). I figured it would be a good book-to-read-in-between-books. I assumed it would be almost exactly like the film, which after all is comprised of competing voice-overs, so how different could it be?
It’s not that different, as it turns out. The plot is much the same, and in general, so are the characters. The one exception to this is Tracy Flick. Outwardly, the character is not that different – desperately ambitious, unquenchably energetic, somewhat suspiciously upbeat, and altogether completely exhausting to read about or watch. But her inner monologue and motivation, largely missing from the film, is what made the book worth reading for me.
I assume most of you know the plot of Election, so I won’t regale you here. Suffice is to say, it’s an accurate skewering of high school, both the good parts and the shitty parts. If you’re a teacher, I imagine there’s a lot of familiar stuff here, too (notably, the pressure of being a role model when your own life is in shambles). But I will say what makes the book worth picking up: first off, the ending is far more satisfying, if a little less funny and a little more melancholy. Secondly, Tracy Flick of the book is a real person, not just a caricature of female ambition run wild. Reading the book, I questioned Mr. M’s motives the way I never did in watching the film. Why did he think the school deserved better than Tracy? What did she ever do but work hard? Was it because she was a female, or because she was unapologetic?
The Tracy Flick of this book is far from perfect, but she’s a lot more sympathetic than Alexander Payne gave her credit for (in fairness, he’s not known for having sympathy for any of his characters, male or female). She was coming of age in a complicated time for a young woman, especially one with ambitions. I found myself wondering if the adult version of Tracy Flick had to contend with comparisons to Hillary Clinton the same way Hillary was compared to her. I cringed for her as I imagine the ways in which she will attempt to reconcile her sexuality with her professional conduct, occasionally confusing the two. But honestly? I mostly wished her well. And even though she’s just a fictional character, I found myself smiling to imagine her reaction to her real-life counterpart giving the metaphorical finger to all the haters and going on to become a kick-ass Secretary of State – even if she did lose the election.