Sunday, December 28, 2014

"Florence Gordon," by Brian Morton

Brian Morton is a male author writing about a (fictional) leading feminist scholar and author. I initially did a slight double take when I realized this, but then thought “why not?” After all, I tell my students that men can (and should, in my opinion) be feminists too. And I believe that good writers can write about anyone and anything, and should not be limited to writing about their own gender, race, experience, etc. Morton’s novel “Florence Gordon” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014) focuses on an aging (75-year-old), rather grumpy, uncompromising, fearless woman who refuses to admit any weaknesses, and who is hard on her family and others around her. It could be said that she is missing some basic social skills. But it could also be said that she doesn’t feel the same socialized need that so many women do to always be aware of and cater to the needs of those around her, and always speak diplomatically. For Florence, her work -- her research, writing, and activism -- is paramount. The only other character that gets her attention and with whom she develops a rapport -- albeit slowly and very undemonstratively -- is her granddaughter Emily. Florence is a forbidding character, yet one that obviously cares about making the world a better and more equitable place for both women and men. I admire Morton’s creation of this character, one who is not easy to like, yet is clearly a good person who makes a difference. But the author resists doing what some authors too obviously do: sentimentalizing by making a slightly difficult character one with a "heart of gold." I also admire his choosing to focus on an older person, which is not very common in modern fiction (as I have discussed here before). The story takes place in New York City, where Florence lives and teaches. The events of the story arise largely out of the interactions among Florence and her son, daughter-in-law, and granddaughter, the latter three of whom have recently come to New York for various reasons. Each of the main characters -- Florence, her son Daniel, her daughter-in-law Janine, and her granddaughter Emily -- has her or his own secrets. There are flirtations with infidelity, entanglements with disturbed others, illness, and more intriguing plot points. Morton tells the story in quite short chapters, which makes the novel very accessible and reader-friendly; at first I felt it also somehow oversimplified it, but I got over that feeling after a while. For those who like portrayals of strong women, for those who care about feminism, for those who appreciate novels that include or even focus on older characters (for a change), for those who like to read about family interactions, and for those who like novels set in New York City, this novel has much to offer.

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