Florence Gordon is seventy-five – a smart, opinionated and cranky feminist icon who pretty much drives her family and friends crazy. She’s trying to write her memoir, looking backward and inward, but today won’t leave her alone. She insists (often) that all she wants is a peaceful life in which everyone leaves her alone.
On a night when she desires nothing more than to stay home and write, she is blindsided by well-intentioned friends who thought they had seen every sort of bad behavior she could dish out. They were wrong. And now the New York Times wants to publish a review of her book that declares her a “national treasure.” She might not admit it, but she agrees. Her son and daughter-in-law are having a dramatic moment in their marriage and their daughter has love troubles of her own. Florence’s obnoxious ex-husband habitually insults her, even as he tries to capitalize on her successes. She would like to ignore all of them – and to a remarkable degree she does, even when they are face to face. I have to say that, despite all her baggage and bad behavior, I loved Florence. She’s got something to say about everything, and it’s often hilarious and right on the nose. You will probably be glad she’s merely on the page and not at your Thanksgiving table, but I think you will love her too.
Brian Morton’s latest novel is a good read for anyone looking to curl up on a winter’s day and sink into a compelling story that will stay with you for some time. It’s not a big, sweeping novel. Rather, it’s a window on the world of a family at vastly different moments in their lives. The scenes between Florence and her granddaughter are especially wonderful. Their relationship ebbs and flows throughout the book, always true to the ages and moods of the two characters. Morton has created three generations of realistic female characters, defying those who believe this is impossible for a male author. I recognized myself in each of them.
The novel is a series of short chapters, sometimes presenting the same scene from the point of view of two characters, one immediately after the other. It is never confusing and the short chapters provide an abruptness that is a clue to what I believe Morton is writing about: life is quick to change on a dime. Some readers have balked at the ending, but I loved it because it perfectly underscores that abruptness and the effect it has on one’s life. He gives his characters opportunities to do their best every minute even if it makes them unhappy in the moment. Tough lesson, and not always heeded.
The Attentive Reader will note: Morton has a gift for dropping one word into a sentence that tells you all you need to know about a character. Example one: Florence’s son Daniel, despite having been raised by a feminist icon, is baffled by the weight given to the NY Times review, believing that it was “just one lady who happened to get the assignment” and who thought Florence was worthy. Example two: Florence thinks her ex-husband is “shifty and evasive,” the kind of man who spends “his discretionary income on some surly dominatrix in Brooklyn.” The italics are mine, and they tell you more about Daniel and Florence than a couple of ten-line paragraphs. Keep an eye open for such moments.