It was a joy to be alone. It was fun to play the social role, it was fun to play the old lion at Town Hall, but it was far, far better to be alone again.
Florence Gordon is a 75-year old feminist writer living in New York City when her family descends upon her quiet orderly life. Her son, Daniel and his wife, Janine along with their 19-year old daughter, Emily are visiting for a few months while Janine completes a fellowship at Columbia University. Nestled into a sublet close to Florence on the Upper West Side, Daniel (a Seattle police officer) and Janine (a psychologist) along with Emily, a college sophomore who has taken a semester off from Oberlin College embark upon a journey where the words spoken between them are as important as what’s not said.
Written by Brian Morton and published in 2014, Florence Gordon tells the story of a family whose lives orbit around the central character, Florence Gordon, an accomplished author of six books and well-known feminist (the irony of her first name being feminine and her last name masculine is not lost on the reader) who has recently been recognized for her contribution to the cause.
A complicated woman who prefers to spend her days alone writing, Florence finds the burden of being a mother, a mother–in-law, and grandmother intolerable. If she could divorce family members like she divorced her ex-husband, Saul decades earlier she most certainly would. She preferred to focus on her own needs because nothing else really mattered to Florence beyond her work – not her family, the friends who tolerated her, or the outside world.
At the core of the story is Florence who never compromises, is “always outraged, always indignant about something she’d read or heard or seen” and yet, the real story is the one between Daniel, Janine, and Emily. Married 23 years, Daniel and Janine have raised two children in Seattle: 22-year-old Mark, who recently graduated from Reed College and is living in Portland, and Emily, who is trying to figure out what to do with her life.
Daniel is 47 years old, a 20-year police officer, and the son of two self-absorbed adults (“two certified New York intellectuals”) who didn’t have time for him or each other. He prefers to live a life that is explainable (“people who cook for themselves were stable”) and values decency above all else. The deeper questions elude Daniel (i.e. Why is my daughter a vegan? Why is my cholesterol and blood pressure high?). Better to remain safe on the outskirts than delve for answers and risk the dangers of intimacy.
Janine is a psychologist who values the comfort and security of living with predictable Daniel but looks at “the life they lived was far from the life she’d always dreamed of living – a life of cultural excitement, a life of conversation, a life in which you keep meeting people who made you think. To the extent that she’d had that life, it hadn’t been one that Daniel had been interested in sharing; it had been one that she’d had to find for herself.”
He wants decency and predictability while she wants excitement and adventure. How these two balance marriage, parenthood, their respective careers, and their own inner demons is what keeps this book from falling into predictability. As much as Florence is Florence, it is also true that Daniel is Daniel and Janine is Janine. The challenge for Emily is to figure out what to take from these troubled adults as she moves forward in her own life.
But one of the fine things about life is the difference between what goes on inside you and what you show to the world.