Florence Gordon, the character, might be one of your least favorite protagonists ever. She’s a grouchy, self-involved, rude know-it-all. But “Florence Gordon,” the book, might well become one of your favorites anyway, as it has for me. It has introduced me to the talented American writer Brian Morton—a professor at Sarah Lawrence—who spins a funny, touching tale about an aging intellectual and her family.
As a feminist activist starting in the ‘60s, Florence has published scores of articles and books, but when we meet her she is trying to write a memoir that she expects reviewers to dismiss offhand as “strident” and “shrill.” Morton tells us Florence “wasn’t a woman who tried to look younger than she was. She didn’t dye her hair; she had no interest in Botox; she didn’t whiten her teeth. Her craggy old-fashioned teeth, rude and honest and untouched, were good enough for her.”
The aging divorcée’s social life in New York City forms around her “study group,” basically a pack of longtime female friends. Together they eat, drink and grouse about the behavior of the young—texting should be banned in restaurants! Twitter is ridiculous! Facebook is useless! (Though a few have quietly admitted to being on it.)
Florence is now inconvenienced by, of all things, her family. Her daughter-in-law, Janine, who admits to having had “an intellectual crush” on Florence since reading her work in college, is in New York on a year-long fellowship in psychology. Janine’s daughter Emily, who’s taking a break from college, is staying with her mom and trying to work through a boyfriend problem. The two have been in the city for months before Florence arranges to see them. Florence’s son Daniel, a Portland, Oregon cop (much to Florence’s horror) comes to the city to visit his wife and daughter.
Morton deftly uses multiple points of view. At first, we fear we’re going to be stuck inside Florence’s mind for the whole story. But all of her family members have their own, private crises. This allows Morton to delve into each one’s psyche and display his talent for humor, emotional savvy and wisdom. He’s also a master with domestic dialogue.
Janine is discovering that living in the city has brought her back to life. Working closely with her mentor—a pudgy, hirsute psychologist—makes her yearn for something she sees in him. Ironically it’s their study of “the complicated relationship between our intentions and our impulses” that leads the two into after-hours work. Daniel, feeling a bit lost at sea from living alone for months, senses that his close relationship with his wife is changing. Emily offers to help with research for her grandmother’s memoir and lives in the hope that her grandmother might someday almost like her.
Readers will find a delightful mix of snappy New York talk, dramatic teen angst, hilarious jibes at today’s media and a charming midlife crush. You might even come to tolerate Florence.