Why Are Honest Feminist Novels Like Brian Morton’s ‘Florence Gordon’ So Rare?

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Brian Morton’s Florence Gordon is a rare thing indeed. It’s a rich book featuring a titular character that you may know exists now, at this moment in the world, but who happens to be basically a unicorn in literature: a 75-year-old woman, a public intellectual, feminist icon, and irascible New Yorker.

The fifth book by Morton, Florence Gordon functions as a sort of mirror image to the writer’s last book, the wonderful Starting Out in the Evening (made into a 2007 movie featuring Frank Langella and Lauren Ambrose). Starting Out in the Evening was an Upper West Side moment about an aging literary lion and his relationship with the younger woman who was writing a thesis on his work; Florence Gordon concerns an out-of-fashion feminist icon and her relationship with her family, in particular, her college-age granddaughter, who she grows to appreciate, but first impressions are somewhat dire: “The granddaughter wasn’t so bad. She had a little bit of spirit, at least.”

In short, fast-moving chapters, Morton alternates between perspectives, writing as Florence; her son Daniel; his Florence-fangirl wife, Janine; and Florence’ granddaughter, Emily. They’re all at crucial points in their life one summer — Florence celebrates a birthday and begins working on her memoir, certain that she will ride out the rest of her years in happy obscurity, while Janine and Emily move to New York for the summer for a fellowship and a college class, respectively, but they’re also concerned with matters of love and relationships and how to be. Daniel, the son of two intellectuals who grew up to be a Seattle cop, is an outlier, but he’s also trying to shape where his future is going.

Florence is the center of the orbit, however, and it’s her journey that’s the most interesting. From a respected career as a feminist firebrand, with a moment of relevance in the ’70s, she has quieted down, but her words still hold weight: “Florence’s voice on the page was unlike anything that Janine had encountered before… It was a style Janine later encountered in other writers — Vivian Gornick, Ellen Willis, Katha Pollit… She continued to represent Janine’s idea of a free woman.”

The strength of Florence Gordon is that it’s sharply plugged into the feminist movement and how it’s changed over the years. We hear references like Gloria Steinem, The New Inquiry, and Feministing.com: “she went online… and started vigorously correcting the errors of the young. For a while she felt alive — not just alive, but unconquerable.” And we see how feminism as a movement has changed, how these evergreen issues have traveled from “first wave” to “third wave,” from bra-burning to sex positivity, and beyond, from Florence to Janine down to Emily. It’s specific to the experience of these women, who are, granted, part of a rarefied Upper West Side orbit that Morton knows well. In fact, Morton has done his homework so well throughout the book regarding the many strains of feminism that a glib example of, for lack of a better description, “Jezebel-era feminism” that’s important to the book’s movement rings hollow and off-key, embodied by a feminist speech that ends with, “Bitches, let’s party!”

Yet despite that misstep, there is so much in this book that’s an absolute pleasure; in particular, the beguiling lead character. Florence is an unapologetic, ever-so-herself woman who’s enough of an asshole to skip her own birthday party, to take cocky pleasure in people’s compliments, and to slap a rude dining companion’s Blackberry out of their hand. It’s a refreshing perspective, as every action that Florence takes feels utterly individualistic and specific. It’s hard not to fall in love with her a little bit, to feel a bit like Janine, gasping in admiration.

What makes Florence Gordon a crucial book is the way that it engages with truths that we’re living through but don’t get the chance to talk about on a daily basis, like the evolving state of feminism, from Gloria Steinem to its many factions today, for one, and on a minor level, the way that women pass down stories and flinty survival instincts to each other. This book is vital in the way that it looks at several generations of women, canny with insight — “It was strange, though, that your close friends are rarely the people who ask the questions that mean the most to you,” Florence muses at a point — and with that quality of observation, utterly alive. It’s a lovely experience to read a book that’s so sensitive to the funny ways that humans interact with each other, whether related by blood or by the movement. When I finished the book, I wanted to read some of Florence’s work. I suppose I’ll have to find some satisfaction with The Essential Ellen Willis, instead.