TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Writer Brian Morton is best known for his novel "Starting Out In The Evening," which was adapted into a movie of the same name starring Frank Langella. But critic Maureen Corrigan says if a movie is ever made of Morton's new novel "Florence Gordon" the late Anne Bancroft might just have to return from the dead to play the role. Here's Maureen's review of the novel.
MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: Last year, the big debate in the world of books was over the question of whether or not a novel has to feature likable main characters in order for us readers to identify with them, or make us want to stick with their stories. The debate had a sexist tinge to it. Females characters seemed especially burdened with the need to be pleasing. In fact, the whole issue was ignited by reaction to Claire Massud's novel "The Woman Upstairs," which features as its protagonists a rather glum elementary school teacher in her 30s. This year in books brings us a new novel that, to my mind, shoves the likability issue into the dustbin of beside-the-point literary debates where it belongs.
Brian Morton's novel "Florence Gordon" features a 75-year-old woman, an icon of the Second Wave Women's Movement, as its heroine. She's a self-described difficult woman. Even those who love her regard her as a pain in the neck. Don't think of Florence Gordon as some egghead version of Betty White. Florence isn't cute or sentimentalized in her crankiness. She's more in the intimidating Lillian Hellman, Susan Sontag, Lioness-In-Winter mode - someone who doesn't suffer fools or most anyone else gladly. You wouldn't want to be her friend or family member. Rather, you're deeply grateful, at least I was, to meet her in the best way possible - in the exquisitely crafted pages of Morton's witty, nuanced and ultimately moving novel. Florence lives in Manhattan - where else? And on the opening page of the novel, we find her at work on her long deferred memoir. Here's how Morton's omniscient narrator introduces this woman.
(Reading) Florence Gordon was trying to write a memoir, but she had two strikes against her. She was old, and she was an intellectual. And who on earth, she sometimes wondered, would want to read a book about an old intellectual? Maybe it was three strikes because not only was she an intellectual, she was a feminist, which meant that if she ever managed to finish this book, reviewers would inevitably dismiss it as strident and shrill.
That passage, by the way, constitutes practically the entirety of chapter one. Morton toys with the length of chapters throughout his novel, mimicking the rhythms of life. Some chapters are one paragraph long and end abruptly, like many of Florence's conversations. Others are a bit longer and more lyrical, like the one in which Florence's daughter-in-law falls slowly and regretfully in love with a coworker while they go bowling together. Florence's writing is interrupted by her nice adult son, Daniel, who's a cop living in Seattle. Florence has always been bored by Daniel and what she thinks of as his cottage-cheesy politeness, as well as by, what is to her, his bizarre career choice. Also intruding into Florence's precious time, are Daniel's restless wife of 23 years and teenage daughter, Emily. Emily dislikes her semi-famous grandmother, especially because Florence can't seem to remember her name. And yet as weeks go by, she's intrigued by Florence's grit and what Emily thinks of as a rather different model of how to be human. An even bigger disruption enter Florence's life in the form of a glowing Sunday New York Times review of her last book, written by the eminent philosopher, Martha Nussbaum.
Morton's novel, by the way, frequently drops the names of thinkers, like Katha Pollitt, Raymond Williams and Tony Judt. Suddenly Florence is embarking on her first-ever book tour, dealing brusquely with fawning female fans of a certain age, parrying with some patronizing younger feminists and, along the way, sensing the chill of mortality on her skin. Why spend time in Florence Gordon's severe company? Well, as one of her simpering admirers who's just been verbally assaulted by Florence tells her, you're brutal, but I appreciate it. "Florence Gordon" is one of those extraordinary novels that clarifies its readers' sense of things, rather than cozying up to our conventional pieties. Morton's ending is straight out of off Chekov; it's up in the air and brave, a closing vision of a life, in all its messy contradictions, just limping down the street.
GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University and is the author of the new book "So We Read On: How The Great Gatsby Came To Be And Why It Endures." She reviewed "Florence Gordon" by Brian Norton. You can read an excerpt on our website, freshair.npr.org.
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