Wednesday, November 11, 2015

What Did the Book Club Think of Brian Morton's "Florence Gordon?"

Florence Gordon was recommended to me by Jane Glaser. This is the second time I've worked with a big Brian Morton fan, but since the last book was 2006, for that one it was Nancy at Schwartz.

The novels:
--The Dylanist (1991)
--Starting Out in the Evening (1997)
--A Window Across the River (2003)
--Breakable You (2006)
--Florence Gordon (2014)

He does not rush things.

So Florence Gordon was part of Jane's women of autumn last year, and after hearing about the book for the umpteenth time, and knowng that I was still hanging onto Morton's last novel, still unread, it was a must for us to schedule for the in-store lit group. And I'm so glad we did. The book turned out to be a big hit among the attendees.

Florence Gordon is an academic, a feminist, and a bit of a crank. She's serious, and she speaks and acts to the point, doing so much as to leave a surprise party for her 75th birthday, so she can return to writing her memoirs.

She's been laboring in public obscurity, thought she has enough of a cult following to ensure that each of her works has been published, championed by her longtime editor. She's read enough to be recognized by younger women's studies students, but as we learn in the book, sometimes they recognize her, but haven't quite read her.

So the book chronicles the ups and downs of Gordon, long-time denizen of the Upper West Side. Many of the ups and downs are small, but two are major. On the upside, she is brought out of obscurity by a major front-page review of her latest book in The New York Times Book Review. But on the downside, she's having some physical problems, not yet diagnosed.  I have the urge to link to Martha Nussbaum's review, but I have to remember it never happened - Morton references a number of real-life writers and academics in his fictional story.

Gordon has a tenuous connection to her son Dan, a police officer, and his wife Janine, a big fan of Florence's who nonetheless finds her mother-in-law keeping her distance. The family (there are also two kids) has mostly lived in Seattle but they find themselves in New York for some time. While Janine has trouble breaking through Florence's facade, the granddaughter Emily slowly connects with Florence. This connecting of the generations is the heart of the story, and by far the most interesting relationship.

Of the son, he is mentioned and discarded. I wasn't sure what he was there for - he felt like a ghost character to me, in that he might have had more space in the novel, but was edited out.

So what did the book club think?

Lily echoed many of the group when she said, "I loved the book and wish I knew Florence personally."

Linda also spoke for many when she focused in on Florence and Emily's relationship. She found it a bit slow until then.

Albert was told by his wife Joyce that this was a woman's book and not to expect much (I should note that she loved the book), but he wound up really liking it as well. He found the short chapters compelling (Yes, absolutely recommend this book to folks who like All The Light We Cannot See, when they focus on the structure and not the historical fiction angle). He had become convinced it was not written by a man.

Caroline was particularly suspicious of the story. As the story of a feminist of a certain age, she could certainly identify. And yet, she wound up liking it. It completely surprised her.

And yes, this was a theme that came out again and again - Brian Morton is a man who can write a woman's voice. And so, from hereon forth, whenever we have a member who throws a fit that men don't know how to write women, we can summon forth Brian Morton and Florence Gordon and move on.

Nancy told us that Florence Gordon reminded her of her aunt. Gail thought the book did a great job highlighting problems faced by an older generation. One of the most poignant scenes is when Florence went out to check on an old friend, who wanted to maintain her independence, but was having trouble with everyday things like, well, keeping clean.

There were only two attendees (out of 14) who didn't really take to the story. Calista thought there'd be more gentle satire in the story, while Mo found it more sad than engaging. She just didn't connect to Florence like some of the others.

I find it interesting that we're always discussing the likability of heroines and whether that is a valid criticism of a novel, and how women seem to confront this more than men. So here's a novel where you're not really supposed to like the protagonist, but maybe get to understand her by the end, and lo and behold, just about everyone is completely in love with her.

And once again we hit spoilers. I've decided not to say anything about it, but I will say we discussed the ending, which had a bit of an open-endedness to it. Not that we didn't know what happened - we did - but there was some question as to how it came about.

Several people noted that New York City, or in particular, the Upper West Side, the only liberal and often Jewish quarter of the city, is a character in the book. Very New Yorky. We'll return to that in a moment.

Florence's many relationships were interesting. Her son Dan seemed so different from her on the surface, but so similar inside. Her estranged husband Saul she put up with, but in the end, did she have to confront him directly in order to help him long-term?And Janine, her daughter in law? Was she in fact acting similarly to her daughter Emily, but because of their differences in ages, what was appropriate for Emily was a bit sad for Janine. Not that we asked for her to be singled out, but several readers took a dislike to Janine. Personally I think they were being to judgy. And when someone mentioned that Dan had a better relationship with Emily than Janine did, I thought that was an unfair reading of the text - Emily clearly did a lot with Janine at an age when she did not have to. It wasn't explored much, but they had some sort of bond.

So as I was doing research for our conversation, one thing I noticed was that a very high percentage of folks who reviewed the book loved it. This is as opposed to several other higher profile books who had the coverage, but many of the reviews were, well, civilized, rather than enthusiastic. These reviews, when they are positive, are nothing short of enthusiastic. It made me think that there are fans of this book in high places who simply missed out.

Interestingly enough, the worst major general-interest review was from Randy Boyagoda in The New York Times Book Review: "Morton traffics too much in this kind of familiar cleverness, as well as in obligatory left-liberal disappointment riffs about Barack Obama, coupled with sitcom-smart family dialogue and writing-kit-quality takes on life in New York." He also felt like the book would have been helped with at least some of Florence's writings. This was not an issue for any of the other critics, and it's my feeling that it would have hurt the book, but I always enjoy a contrary take and I think the author made a number of valid points.

The daily review in the NYT for Florence Gordon was an in short that was more-or-less a plot summary.

For better takes on the book, see:
--Maureen Corrigan for Fresh Air (glowing!)
--Elizabeth Taylor in the Chicago Tribune
--Yvonne Zipp in The Christian Science Monitor 
--Kirkus, starred, a finalist for the Kirkus Prize
--Malena Watrous in the San Francisco Chronicle
--Arielle Landau in the New York Daily News
--Margaret Sullivan in the Buffalo News

Please note that this is actually a fine list of reviews and the publisher should be proud. It's just that the people who reviewed the book were generally ecstatic, with many of them putting it on their best-of-the-year lists. And it's just ironic that Margaret Sullivan, who actually works at The New York Times, gave a review for the Buffalo News that was far more glowing than either of the reviews in the actual paper.

I have to quote Corrigan here: "Why spend time in Florence Gordon's severe company? Well, as one of her simpering admirers who's just been verbally assaulted by Florence tells her, "You're brutal. ... But I appreciate it." Florence Gordon is one of those extraordinary novels that clarifies its readers' sense of things, rather than cozying up to our conventional pieties. Morton's ending is straight out of a Chekov story: It's up in the air and brave; a closing vision of a life in all its messy contradictions, just limping down the street."

So one thing I didn't really get is that this was perceived in the market as a Jewish novel. There's really little mention of religion in the story but it's feet are grounded in Jewish dirt. More reviews: ------Adam Kirsch in Tablet
--Tobias Carroll in The Forward
--Anna Swartz in Heeb

The other negative review I found was in the Haaretz, that complained that the book wasn't Jewish enough. Gerald Sorin writes: "A reader may wonder why the novel has so little explicit Jewish content, even if only to show us why, unlike so many other Jewish social activists, Florence Gordon has no interest in things Jewish." I am not a scholar of these things, but I questioned his thesis that just about all social activists who are Jewish obsess over their Jewishness. Please discuss among yourselves and let me know.

I think the paperback cover is an improvement on the hardcover. The cloth treatment was a generic New York scene, albeit one with a reflection repeated atop the title, while the paperback gets to the heart of the story's quirkiness.

Jane sure can pick them. This book is sort of book club gold - a relatively fast read, a good chunk of things to talk about and a crowd pleaser that is nonetheless well written.

Next up, the book club takes on another eponymous heroine, Lila, by Marilynne Robinson. This discussion is scheduled for Monday, December 7, 7 pm, at Boswell. As always, newcomers are welcome to join.

And by popular demand, we're having a bonus discussion of Lauren Groff's Fates and Furies, on Tuesday, November 24, at a special time of 2 pm (yes, the afternoon.)

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