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Tracy Flick Can’t Win
Tom Perrotta ’83
Scribner, $27  
Reviewed by Debra Spark ’84

Tracy Flick was an ambitious, hard-driving, unpopular aspirant to student council president in Perrotta’s 1998 novel Election. In the book, she was cheated out of “office,” but she won a place in our cultural consciousness. After Reese Witherspoon played her in the screen version of the novel, Flick morphed into a totemic figure in conversations about desire, ambition, power, sexuality, privilege, and consent.

In Perrotta’s latest novel, Tracy Flick Can’t Win, Flick is still stuck in a high school where her talents go unappreciated, but now she’s 25 years older, a hard-working vice principal with narrower horizons and new contests to enter. She aims to be high school principal on her boss’s retirement, and she’s tasked with adjudicating an admittedly silly Hall of Fame contest for alums, in part to placate a potential supporter. The twinned competitions force Flick to reconsider issues from her adolescent years and for Perrotta to do the same now that mores have changed. Is the determined-to-succeed adolescent girl who slept with her high school teacher pushy and aggressive? Or the victim of predatory behavior? What about the Black sports star who hit an abusive authority figure? And how to evaluate the formerly lauded football player, once a bully, now an ashamed alcoholic trying to get clean? Without simplifying the victims or victimizers, Perrotta presents characters who want, each in his or her own way, to redress the past. Perrotta’s touch is light, making Tracy Flick a deceptively breezy, fast-paced, and funny novel despite its ultimately dark subject.