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Tracy Flick came back to haunt Tom Perrotta in the best way possible. The author of Election, which became a cult-classic film starring Reese Witherspoon as the ambitious student body president candidate, was simply working on a new book set in a high school when he realized it would be a perfect avenue to bring back his most iconic character.
Indeed, the book almost demanded it. "As I started to write it, I kept wanting it to be in the form that Election was in, with multiple narrators," says Perrotta, who also penned such best-sellers as Mrs. Fletcher and Little Children. "I was thinking, 'Why am I doing this? I don't want to copy myself; I want to do something new.' And I suddenly realized that the novel needed something else. I was basically summoning Tracy to help me write this book, because she was at the center of all these ideas [I was dealing with] about high school and fame and small-town politics."
Everett Collection Reese Witherspoon as Tracy Flick in 'Election'
The result is Tracy Flick Can't Win, which will be published June 7, 2022, from Scribner. (Get an exclusive look at the cover, designed by Jonathan Bush, below.) The new novel finds a middle-aged Tracy as a hard-working assistant principal at a suburban New Jersey high school. She's struggling with disappointment in the way her life has turned out when an opportunity for a promotion suddenly arises. It's a knowingly "counterintuitive" approach to Tracy, as Perrotta puts it, and a new twist on the ruthlessly driven character we met in Election.
"People think of her as a person of unstoppable ambition, and she's often compared to almost any successful female politician, from Hillary Clinton to Sarah Palin," the author says. "But over all these years, I've run into women who say, 'I was Tracy Flick,' and they are not famous politicians. They're just ordinary women who clearly had this drive to succeed when they were in high school, but then found themselves in much more ordinary circumstances. I was really interested in that. It's fascinating to plumb the psychology of ambitious people who have to put their ambitions aside."
Scribner 'Tracy Flick Can't Win,' by Tom Perrotta
The passage of time hasn't just transformed the Tracy in the novel. In the 20-plus years since Election's film adaptation hit screens, Tracy Flick has taken on a life of her own in popular culture, largely powered by Witherspoon's indelible performance. (Even Perrotta admits he "can't think about Tracy without picturing Reese Witherspoon now.")
"It's been a very interesting challenge for me as a writer to reimagine a character who, in some sense, I lost control of," the author says with a laugh. "I very much drew on everything that was in the original book, but I think it was also enriched by Reese's performance, and by the way that the culture has been reinterpreting Tracy through a more feminist lens in recent years."
That lens was key to the deeper layers that Perrotta brought to the novel, as he did with its predecessor. Published in 1998, Election was partially the author's reaction to the 1992 presidential election — "It was the beginning of that moment when the candidates' private lives became a really important part of the political discussion," he previously told EW — and shifting sexual politics. Tracy Flick Can't Win is likewise a response to our current sociopolitical moment: A key story line sees Tracy re-evaluating the affair she had with a high school teacher when she was a student, engaging with the way such relationships have been reframed in recent years.
"This is very much a book written in response to the #MeToo cultural revolution," Perrotta says. "In Election, Tracy is unapologetic about her affair, and now she's reading stories in the paper that make her wonder, 'Am I understanding my own life right?' It's very important to her that she's not a victim, and suddenly the culture is saying, 'Girls like you were victims, even if they thought they had some agency and were making their own decisions at the time.' Tracy is actively involved in that revisionist moment, trying to figure out who she was and how that connects to who she is."
Ben King; Penguin Random House Author Tom Perrotta penned 'Election,' which became a cult-classic 1999 film
The themes of male power and sexism also manifest in a new hall of fame at Tracy's high school, with the men on the selection committee determined to honor a former star quarterback named Vito Falcone. It's a familiar situation for Tracy — an echo of her male teacher's scheme to have a popular football player defeat her in Election — and one that prompts much self-reflection from her, Perrotta says.
"It's confronting Tracy with another version of male power and the way that it has always been hovering around her," the author explains. "It's a little bit about, are these men who have cast a shadow on Tracy's life ever going to fade away? And it really is about that other part of the #MeToo moment, a crack in the glass ceiling that people like Tracy kept bumping into. I think there's a sense for Tracy of, 'The world is changing, but is it too late for me?'"
And is it too late for Witherspoon to step back into the role? "That would be amazing," Perrotta says, laughing. "I think it's such a rich psychological challenge for an actor to think about how we change as we enter middle age and what connections we have with the person we were then."
Incidentally, he's already sent the actress, and Election director Alexander Payne, copies of the Tracy Flick Can't Win manuscript: "I just felt like Tracy is a shared property of all the people who worked on the movie," Perrotta says. "I'm waiting to hear [their response]."
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that the cover of Tracy Flick Can't Win was designed by Jaya Miceli. It was designed by Jonathan Bush.