Monday, September 1, 2014

Florence Gordon

Florence Gordon by Brian Morton (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014) 308 pages
Release date: September 23, 2014

The character of Florence Gordon, as created by Morton, fascinates ... she is old, she is difficult, cerebral and ... she's a feminist. When is the last time you saw a male writer try and sympathetically flesh out a character such as this? I will tell you. Never.

Gordon is an old school left-wing feminist who came to the forefront in the 1960s (possibly modeled on feminist icon Vivian Gornick one wonders?) who has recently garnered some high profile critical attention from the New York Times. Suddenly, Florence has the attention that she never received in her long life of activism and writing.

Does Florence respond well? Not particularly. She is still arrogant, abrasive, condescending and yet oddly likable. Morton creates a complex, intriguing character surrounded by well-rounded ancillary characters - her cerebral police officer son Daniel visiting from Seattle, her adoring daughter-in-law Janine, her bright and challenging grand-daughter Emily and her flailing, bitter ex-husband Saul (father to Daniel).

It is fascinating to watch Florence navigate her new fame and her growing emotional relationship with Emily, whom she hires as a research assistant. Here is Florence wading into a crowd of protesters with her cane hoping that her presence, as a somewhat fragile old lady, will dissuade the riot cops  from attacking (it does not). Here is Florence being emotionally bullied by her less successful former husband who tries to pressure her into using her influence to get him a job. Florence thwarting her doctor's attempts at gently managing her ailments. Florence coming to realize how much she likes Emily despite her gruff and unfriendly handling of the young girl.

Morton, author of Starting Out in the Evening and Breakable You, knows his literary facts; he also has a straightforward understanding of the major players, the history, the factions, of the modern women's movement.

Morton is also adept at portraying the modern female in various stages of  life: the innocent with a burgeoning awakening (Emily); the seasoned married woman on the cusp of adultery (Janine); the mature older woman (Florence).

However, I feel that he falters a bit with the characterization of Janine. Why would Janine be attracted to the paternal, schlubby Lev, her co-worker, rather than Daniel? This mystifies the reader. Daniel is intelligent, sensitive, politically aware. Lev is what ... available? Attentive? I think he misses an opportunity in the possible confrontation between Daniel and Janine. The denouement about the adultery fizzles rather than pops.

Florence rides into the proverbial sunset the way she comes into the novel ... with no regrets, no apologies, but leaving in her wake a mightily impressed assemblage of admiring family members and readers.

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