Brian Morton’s Florence Gordon may be someone you know – or, at least think you know. A retired New York City English professor and prolific writer of feminist essays, Florence is writing her memoirs. Surrounded by well-meaning friends, Florence is finding it hard to concentrate when her son Daniel returns from Seattle with his wife and daughter.
In the opening chapters, friends try to surprise her with a party, only to be politely rebuffed. Morton carefully creates an amalgam from stereotypes of strident feminist writers and intellectual English professors, then methodically destroys the image. A strong woman – like Brian Morton’s Florence Gordon – may seem impervious to critical snipes and create the aura of impenetrable independence but few would ever know who she really is – only her granddaughter Emily comes close.
Through Emily’s research for her grandmother’s book and with frequent detours into the lives of Florence’s family, Morton connects the reader to the recent past and examines the difference between now and then. Choices may not be as disparate as they seem, and Florence’s strong will is reflected in her granddaughter’s musings, her daughter-in-law’s indecision, and her son’s stoic facade.
But nothing really is controllable, as Florence discovers when an unanticipated health issue threatens her independence. Morton hints at how she will cope, and leaves the ending ambiguous but with a soulful promise of immortality.
Florence is irascible, independent, strong-willed – sometimes hard to like – but comfortable with herself and her decisions. She likes her solitude. The story is a reminder of how each of us influences others – but perhaps not how we think we do.
I bought this book in its hard cover state – I wanted to hold a book again in my hands and be able to turn down the pages without someone admonishing me. Turns out this was the perfect book to exercise my will. And some of the pages I turned down had these phrases:
“She was like the ambassador of Manhattan. She seemed to believe that a life that took place elsewhere couldn’t truly be called life. She probably held that it was all well and good for Parisians to live in Paris, and Londoners to live in London, but she could not comprehend how any thinking person from the United States could choose to live anywhere other than New York.”
“Am I she thought, one of those dreary people who won’t join any club that will have them for a member? She hoped she wasn’t.”
“Virginia Woolf had said that the task of a woman writer was to kill off the ‘Angel in the House’; the part of oneself that was trained to put the needs of others, in every situation, before one’s own.”
“Old Filth” is just the beginning. Read the next two in the trilogy for a really rich experience.
I agree – read them all and I keep looking for more Jane Gardam. Have you read her short stories?
Thought of you yesterday when I came across the review of Jane Gardam’s “Hollow Land” in the NYT. Did you see it? Reminded me that I wanted to follow up on your recommendation of Old Filth, so I just downloaded it, looking forward to reading it!
Yes, i did read the review and it reminded me i should be reading more Gardam. Once you read Old Filth, you might be hooked too. Let me know.