Thursday, January 15, 2015

Florence Gordon, by Brian Morton

Florence Gordon is a 75-year-old feminist writer and thinker, an icon among a certain group of women, including her daughter-in-law Janine. Then her latest book receives a glowing front-page review in the NYT Review of Books, and she achieves a certain celebrity. At the same time, she is having some health problems and is dealing with her family--son Daniel, Janine, and their daughter Emily are in New York (they normally live in Seattle) for the summer.  Not being a warm and fuzzy person, Florence doesn't enjoy hanging out with the family (her ex-husband Saul is also inserting himself into her life, hoping she will find him a job).  Yet, when Emily volunteers to act as an assistant for the summer to help Florence work on her memoir, she accepts. The two begin to forget a tentative but largely tacit understanding.

Meanwhile, Emily is dealing with a former boyfriend and decisions about having sex and using drugs; Janine is starting an affair with the psychologist supervising her work on the fellowship that brought the family to New York; and Daniel, the son of two academics who became a cop, is spending his vacation reflecting on his life and his marriage.

Florence Gordon has some features of a typical family drama, but Florence's refusal to compromise who she is and how she chooses to construct her life make it anything but typical. Some of her "adventures," like her encounter with a deluded "writer" who drives her to an event on her book tour, are very funny; others, like her interactions with an even older friend who has hygiene issues, are equally sad. Questions about her health and whether she and Emily can build an enduring relationship provide compelling through-lines. Janine's and Daniel's stories are less interesting, but help convey the idea that people are often unaware of their loved ones' concerns and perspectives.

An unusual stylistic feature of Florence Gordon is the varying length of chapters. Many are very short, even though the next chapter continues the same event. Other chapters are much longer. I couldn't fathom exactly why Brian Morton did this or how he decided which scenes would be cut into short chapters or which would be contained within a single chapter, but it did disrupt the rhythm of reading in an interesting way.

Florence Gordon is not a character the reader exactly likes, but she is compelling, making Florence Gordon the novel a book I would recommend.

Favorite passage:
She'd been a young woman during the 1960s, and if you were young in the sixties--"bliss was it in that dawn to be alive"--there's a sense in which you can never grow old. You were there when the Beatles came to America; you were there when sex was discovered; you were there when the idea of liberation was born; and even if you end up a cranky old lady who's proud of her activist past but who now just wants to be left alone to read, write, and think--even if you end up like that, there's something in your soul that stays green.

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