Florence Gordon by Brian Morton
The centre of this novel is a 75-year-old feminist intellectual. Florence Gordon treasures her solitude: “The strain of being with other people was sometimes close to unendurable. The strain of other people’s need” (24). People, however, keep intruding on her life, especially Daniel, her son; Janine, her daughter-in-law; Emily, her 19-year-old granddaughter; and Saul, her ex-husband. Each has his/her own drama which we learn about through shifting third person limited narration. This drama Florence tries to ignore as much as possible.
This book is a character study of a “gloriously difficult woman” (9). Florence describes herself as “a strong proud independent-minded woman who accepted being old but nevertheless felt essentially young. She was also, in the opinion of many who knew her, even in the opinion of many who loved her, a complete pain in the neck” (2). These observations are entirely correct. Also, while referring to her physical appearance, Florence mentions that “Her craggy old-fashioned teeth, rude and honest and unretouched, were good enough for her” (2). The five adjectives she uses to describe her teeth could very well be used to describe her personality.
Florence’s audacity has no bounds. She has no compunctions about avoiding her son and his family, drowning a friend’s cellphone in a drink, walking out on her own surprise birthday party, and publicly chastising both a man for jumping to the front of a queue and the woman at the front of that line for not standing up for herself. “One day she told a beggar to stand up straight and look people in the eye as he begged” (148).
Florence is also consistent. She never compromises the principles by which she has always lived her life. That makes the ending of the book perfect. It might not be the ending a reader would wish, but it is absolutely in keeping with the stubborn, tough, cantankerous woman she has been her entire life.
The points of view of Daniel, Janine, and Emily are given in some chapters. What stands out is how little the family members communicate. One character is in hospital for three days and tells no one. Often the thoughts of more than one character are given about an event and the gap in their understanding of each other is emphasized. For example, at one point, Emily doesn’t make eye contact with Daniel because “She was vibrating with guilt” (203), but her father concludes “It was as if she were embarrassed for him” (206). Perhaps herein lies the tragedy of Florence’s life; she refuses ever to unburden herself to anyone, and her family, constantly having to contend with her caustic bluntness, has retreated into silence. And, as a result, no one really knows anyone. Emily tries to understand her grandmother by becoming her research assistant, but though she learns why Florence is a master of “the art of the hammer” (284), she ultimately finds, “The old lady had eluded her” (305).
I thoroughly enjoyed the book. It is a quick read with its 111 short chapters, but it is totally engrossing as well. Florence is a feisty curmudgeon who arouses both anger and sadness and also earns the reader’s affection and admiration.