Florence Gordon is a brilliant woman. At seventy-five she’s a feminist icon and inspiration to thousands of young women, including her daughter-in-law. Florence is driven, passionate, and sophisticated.
She’s also a rude old crank with no time for fools. Which makes her so much fun to read about!
Morton excels at deftly establishing characters who immediately come across as completely human. Florence, in all her flawed glory, is a wonderful character. You don’t always like her (in fact, you will probably only like her in those few tiny moments where her softer side comes through), but she remains three-dimensional, fascinating, and compelling.
The characters in her orbit are the same. Most of the story revolves around Florence’s family, as the elderly Florence is trying to write her memoir and cement her legacy. There’s her son, Daniel and his wife Janine, their daughter Emily, and Florence’s ex-husband Saul. All of them are distinct, and are seen through the lens of their relationship with Florence–how she’s influenced them in the past, how they interact with her in the present, and the deep family tensions and history underlying it all. You feel the history whenever the characters interact.
The sense of place is nice, as well. You get the New York intelligentsia, the academics and the thinkers and the bohemians, as well as an overview of the modern feminist movement in its various incarnations (as that’s Florence’s life work).
This is a character and relationship-driven novel, and the best relationship is the one that develops between Florence and her granddaughter. Grudging respect, a hint of affection, learning on both sides–it’s lovely to see develop. The book is quiet, nothing huge happens. It’s a few months in the life of Florence Gordon and her family, each of them going through different changes and facing problems. Morton gives us a great snapshot of this particular woman, and her particular relatives, at a particular time in their lives, and then just lets us watch them get set loose.
If you liked Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge, you might find a lot to like here. For a funnier, slightly crazier flavor, you might try one of my favorites, The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street by Susan Jane Gilman. Both of those have narrators who are tough older women with firm opinions and a lot to say–and surprising warmth, sometimes. Olive Kitteridge offers a small-town Maine vibe, while The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street is a sweep of the 20th century in New York.