What distinguishes a New York novel are not just the streetscapes, but also the pull this great city has on its characters. The eponymous Florence Gordon is one of those fictional New Yorkers who believe that “a life that took place elsewhere couldn’t truly be called life.”
Brian Morton’s “Florence Gordon” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) is the story of a feisty feminist icon, now 75, still teaching and writing and alive with ideas, still center stage at any gathering she joins. She is long divorced and living on the Upper West Side in the summer of 2009, when her son, his wife and daughter return to New York City from their home in Seattle.
“Florence Gordon” is a finalist for the inaugural Kirkus Reviews book awards. Morton, who teaches writing at NYU and Sarah Lawrence, where he directs the MFA program, is the author of four previous novels, including “Starting Out in the Evening,” which was made into a feature film starring Frank Langella.
Florence is the kind of person who takes leave of her own surprise birthday party soon after she arrives in order to get back to her writing — she graciously thanks her friends, quotes Yeats and urges them to enjoy the evening without her. She’s sharp-tongued, adamant about human rights and equality, impatient with individual needs and she quickly gets to the truth of things.
She feels familiar, like someone you’d see in a coffee shop along Broadway, engaged in conversation with a similarly dressed gray-haired pal, or standing up to someone who cuts into line at Fairway.
Morton tells The Jewish Week about the challenges of writing this novel: “Florence arrived quickly; virtually as soon as she showed up on the page, she seemed fully formed. But I found her very resistant to taking part in a plot. Normally, a novel is centered around a character who is changing in some way, and Florence had no interest in changing anything about herself. So it took a long time to begin to find a story for her to take part in.”
The author of seven books, Florence had some literary glory in the 1970s, but that had mostly vanished when the novel opens. She is at work on a memoir that begins with her involvement in the women’s movement. Even as she loves “trying to make the sentences come right,” she’s aware that few may be interested in reading about an old intellectual.
Her ex-husband Saul, another literary fighter, has been working on the same book for decades. She left him in the 70s when their son was young; she realized she didn’t want to be a wife. While there’s no discussion of her Judaism or religious life, Florence is unmistakably Jewish, as is her intellectual milieu.
“I think Florence and Saul, especially — the two representatives of the older generation in the book — would say that the Jewish tradition they identify with is the tradition of free thinking, independence of mind, yearning for universal emancipation. They’re not synagogue-goers, but they’re thoroughly Jewish all the same,” Morton says.
Florence doesn’t feel old and isn’t trying to recapture her youth, in part, because, “she found the life she was living now so interesting.” Even though many find her to be a “complete pain in the neck,” she’s a loyal friend, loved and admired by those in her circle, some of whom resemble the likes of Vivian Gornick (who is quoted in the book jacket saying the book is “a marvelous creation”) and Ellen Willis and also by a younger generation that finds inspiration in her writing.
When her editor retires and the new young editor assigned to her invites her to lunch, Florence expects to hear that she is being dropped, but instead she is amazed when he pulls out a copy of an upcoming issue of The New York Times Book Review with a rave review of her latest book on the cover; in that review a feminist scholar calls Gordon a “national treasure.” While she may not admit it, she rather likes the ensuing fuss.
Meanwhile, her son and his family is living on the Upper West Side in an apartment that came with his daughter-in-law Janine’s research fellowship in psychology. Florence’s son took the unlikely career path of becoming a police officer (he still reads a lot, as he did in the home of his parents, and is known by his fellow officers as “the professor”). When he arrives back in New York, near where he grew up, he finds the smell of their lobby unmistakable — “boiled potatoes, cleaning liquids, old, tired marble, and the sadness of elderly Jews.”
His 19-year-old daughter Emily has taken time off from college to be in New York. Florence isn’t particularly interested in any of them, but the inquisitive Emily is intrigued by her grandmother. Their evolving relationship is one of the keys to the story.
Morton unfolds the tale in brief chapters, some no more than a page, seeing life from the different characters’ points of view. The narrator has the advantage of knowing what they’re not saying, like how Emily would really like to reach out to her grandmother, how Florence stops short of showing her granddaughter real kindness and how easily people miss others’ cues.
The recipient of a Guggenheim award, the Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the Koret Jewish Book Award for Fiction, Morton is skilled at imagining other people’s lives. He satirizes without ridiculing; he treats Florence with the respect she commands. This is a rare funny literary novel that deals with aging.
Like “Florence Gordon,” Morton’s “Starting Out in the Evening” is also about an older writer on the Upper West Side. Morton comments, “In writing about writers, I’m trying to look at questions that don’t pertain to writers alone. When you’re writing, you’re free to give expression to the best parts of yourself. But when you get up from the keyboard and live your life, it’s not just the best parts of yourself that are on display. So part of the appeal of writing about writers is that it helps you get very quickly to the tension between who we wish to be and who we are.”
As for the format of “Florence Gordon,” he says, “I hope the short chapters lend little jolts of energy and fun to the novel, and they also, I hope, capture something about modern life, especially life in the city. I probably wouldn’t be using such short chapters if I were writing about life on the Great Plains.”