When I heard a glowing review on NPR about Brian Morton’s new novel, Florence Gordon, I thought I’d give it a try. If NPR says it’s good, then it probably is. I was wrong. It was surprisingly bad, but at least I was surprised.
The book’s description goes something like this: “A wise and entertaining novel about a woman who has lived life on her own terms for seventy-five defiant and determined years, only to find herself suddenly thrust to the center of her family’s various catastrophes.”
On the one hand, I had the delightful image of Florence Henderson (the bubbly blonde mom from The Brady Bunch) barking orders at Duane Reade and coldly dismissing her adoring fans. But—spoiler alert—it was otherwise lacking in entertainment value, wisdom, and family catastrophes. There wasn’t a single catastrophe in the book, so I’ll call that false advertising.
Morton is obviously well-versed with feminist literature, but something rings so untrue about the way his female characters think about it. They say it’s complex without actually having complex feelings. They all seem to come from the same mind without any significant difference of thought.
In Chapter 44, Florence’s granddaughter reflects on her own views after doing an extensive amount of research on feminist icons for her grandmother’s memoir. “Emily wasn’t particularly political, and she had no idea if she was a feminist.” The fracture of inauthenticity cracks wide open here. If Emily is a precocious 19-year-old who’s read up on feminist literature, then how can she have no idea if she’s a feminist or not? She might have questions, she may even have a complex relationship with the ideas of feminism vs. the label of being one (!), but I seriously doubt she would have no idea. It’s as though Morton overheard one or two 19-year-old girls and assumed they all must be the same. As a young woman myself, it’s not so troubling that this character can’t commit to being a feminist as much as it doesn’t seem to fit her character.
In a similar vein, the relationship between Emily and her father, Daniel (Florence’s son), comes off as cloyingly annoying. There’s nothing witty about their banter or inside jokes. If anything, every conversation they have reads like a dad’s fantasy of what his relationship with his daughter could be like, and that makes me sad. Maybe I shouldn’t be so hard on this guy…
Except that it’s so cheesy because it’s trying so hard not to be. Taking pride in New York isn’t a bad thing until you try to turn it into another “character” or include something as cliché as “even walking was different in New York.” We get it. New York is the only place to be, who cares, etc.
The onslaught of references do less to make the characters sound intellectual and more like the author’s pitiful attempt at reminding everyone that he, the author, is really the intellectual. I guess you mention n+1 and Raymond Williams enough times and the reader thinks, “Wow, what an impressive intellect!” Except it doesn’t actually work that way. Needless references only shine a light on the author when the author should get out of the way and disappear behind the mind of the character.
Which reminds me—where’s Florence Gordon in all of this? She stands out decisively as the most enjoyable character in this book, and yet, the other characters have the maddening habit of bogging down her voice. Between the short, choppy chapters and flitting from character to character, it reads as though Morton can’t sit down with one voice and delve into something deeper.
As Maureen Corrigan points out in her review for NPR, this book “shoves the ‘likeability’ issue into the dustbin of beside-the-point literary debates where it belongs.” While the question remains whether a main character has to be likeable to be worth reading, I found the opposite to be true of these characters. The ones you’re supposed to like I despised and the clear villain was the only one with whom I could empathize. If only he’d explored that space and played with those expectations, I think Morton could have scrounged together some amount of emotional depth to make this novel worthy of the paper it’s printed on.