Several years ago, I came across a movie called Starting Out in the Evening. It had a promising cast (Frank Langella, Lauren Ambrose, Lily Taylor and Adrian Lester all figure prominently) and a literary-themed plot. It was based on a novel by the same name, by a writer named Brian Morton. I hadn’t heard of Morton, but it quickly became apparent that was a blind spot on my part (one I’ve since rectified), rather than a reflection of his talent. He’s written five novels, directs Sarah Lawrence’s program in Writing, and this month he published a new novel, Florence Gordon, with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Morton’s last book was 2007’s Breakable You. This isn’t a particularly long gap between books, certainly not unheard of, but arguments could be made about how we communicate differently now than we did then. More rapidly, in single lines or brief capsules of text rather than paragraphs or pages. Morton’s new novel appears to respect these perceived changes, but I doubt he made the formal choices he did for that reason; this isn’t the first time he’s employed the short – 1 or 2 page long – chapter. It just happens to work particularly well here. This also isn’t a case of a writer breaking a long chapter into a series of short ones in the interest of forcing the reader to turn pages. Each chapter here is a brief interlude from the point of view of one of the four characters (Florence, her son Daniel, his wife Janine and their daughter/Florence’s granddaughter Emily) central to Florence’s story. These hundred-odd short chapters also seem to acknowledge how strong Florence’s presence on the page is, and how difficult it would be to establish other characters in a satisfying manner, if she had more unbroken page space.
About Florence: she’s seventy-five years old, a scholar in the latter days of a long career, in which she was a notable feminist voice. When we meet her, she’s at work on a memoir. She’s also formidable in her personal dealings. She expects much of her friends and family, and she’s not hesitant to let these people (or strangers) know when they’ve disappointed her. None of that’s to say she’s unlikable on the page. She’s often brusque and self-interested, but she’s also spent much of her life pursuing social justice in America. At seventy-five, she continues to do so, as when she takes part in a protest of the rules which prohibit gay men from donating blood. The tone Morton takes here belies all that seeming heaviness. “Florence Gordon was trying to write a memoir,” the book begins, “but she had two strikes against her: she was old and she was an intellectual. And who on earth, she sometimes wondered, would ever want to read a book about an old intellectual?” It’s wry but buoyant, a balance Morton sustains despite the specter of events like illness and betrayal.
Her daughter-in-law idolizes her, though Florence finds the woman’s deference stifling. It’s her granddaughter, a 19-year-old gradually finding her way back to college after a semester off, with whom she forges the closest bond, though this is more thanks to the girl’s efforts than any openness or dedicated guidance on Florence’s part.
The plot turns on a glowing New York Times review of Florence’s most recent book, and a look back at her career by a well-known writer. The sudden acclaim reinforces some of her worst tendencies, but it’s also the catalyst that brings her closer to Emily, who begins work as her assistant. And though Florence is undeniably the main attraction here, Morton establishes Daniel, Janine and Emily as compelling figures in their own right. He renders marital difficulties and the uncertainty of young love with equal authority. Daniel the young poet and Daniel the middle-aged cop are both credible. Janine’s inability to engage with Florence on a meaningful level is as well. Morton has range, and the result is a cast of characters it’s easy to invest in, even when they’re at odds with one another.
Morton sprinkles in references to smart phones, Twitter, Gawker and blogging, elements that feel natural to Florence Gordon’s characters and events, though it’s hard not to wonder how long these references will feel current. But that’s nitpicking and not quite fair besides; as I say, they’re references that work in the context they’re presented. Florence Gordon the character is strong and self-possessed; we as readers are fortunate that she doesn’t “elude [us] once again,” as she does so many others in her life. And Florence Gordon the novel? She’d approve, I think, though if what Morton’s shown us here is any guide, she’d also probably have a sheaf of notes for the author. I doubt either of them would have it any other way.