Florence Gordon

9780544309869_p0_v2_s260x420Brian 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.”


9780062365583_p0_v4_s260x420How do you react when you know someone is testing you – try your best to pass the test, or resent the pressure? In David Nicholls “Us,” Douglas Petersen has only the family summer trip to Europe to prove his worth to his wife, who has informed him she is leaving after their son goes off to college in the Fall. Makes you wonder why he would bother – but he does.

“There’s a saying…if you love someone you must set them free. Well, that’s just nonsense. If you love someone, you bind them to you with heavy metal chains.”

The first half of the book follows Douglas, the earnest scientist, and his wife Connie, the free spirit artist, as they try to educate their teenage son in the beauty of European art, as the family starts its ” World Tour.” The squabbles will be familiar to anyone who has tried to raise a teenager and the descriptions of the continental surroundings will bring nostalgia to anyone who has been to Paris and Amsterdam. As the reader gets to know the two principal characters, their extreme differences emerge, and it’s a wonder they have stayed together for twenty-five years.  As well-meaning as Douglas is, his starched attitude toward life is annoying. Of course, organization and sensible living has its virtues, but Douglas seems to have become mired in them, and lost all sense of fun and adventure. On the other hand, the mother/son recklessness counters his rigidness, and you may find yourself rooting for him, while wishing he would acquire more spontaneity.

By the second half of the book, the family journey has dissolved into a mother going home alone, the teenager going off with a newfound girlfriend, and Douglas determinedly pursuing his son across Europe – to find him, to apologize for not defending him in a bar brawl, and to save his family. As the tale follows Douglas through Verona, Venice, Florence, and Sienna, his character changes, morphing from stale rules follower and guidebook reader to a sympathetic version of Charlie Brown – a good guy, despite his quirks.  The epiphany in Barcelona leads to a new understanding among the three characters, but Nicholls adjusts the romantic ending I had hoped for, into a realistic amalgam of trust, love, and self-discovery.

The thoughtful exploration of this marriage, with its familiar rhythms, had me hoping for some compassion for Douglas, who could not help who he is – and Nicholls delivers.  But, whenever I decide to venture on a World Tour, I am bringing this book with me – from London, through Paris and Amsterdam, with train rides across Europe to Italy, and eventually Madrid and Barcelona – Nicholls offers a connection better than any guide book.


Inferno by Dan Brown

9780385537858_p0_v11_s260x420Envisioning my version of the characters is part of the fun of escaping into the fictionalized world, but with Dan Brown’s latest mystery thriller – Inferno –  I MV5BMTQ2MjMwNDA3Nl5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwMTA2NDY3NQ@@._V1._SY314_CR1,0,214,314_couldn’t get Tom Hanks out of my mind – Robert Langdon will never be the same.  The book was a hot pick at my library (to be returned within a week), but the intensity of Brown’s stories encourage fast reading, and it was easy to finish quickly. Using his familiar successful formula of a mad chase with a beautiful woman, complete with secrets, puzzless and historical references, Brown targets overpopulation and a villain who would solve the problem with a pandemic.

Florence is the site for the action, with references to its amazing art. Brown may add this Italian city to Paris and Rome as a future tour destination for tourists looking to follow the mystery.  The Parisian church, made famous by the Da Vinci Code, had crowds looking for the nonexistent clues that had made the book famous. It is fiction, after all, but with Brown’s latest adventure, his astute connection of real history and literature to his fabricated additions, make the story seem real.  The scientific possibilities for biochemical alterations and the mathematical predictions add credibility to the future doom predicted in the tale.  If you missed reading Dante’s Divine Comedy, Brown’s lectures will clarify any vague notions about the descriptions of hell, purgatory, and paradise with excerpts and explanations.

Brown assures the reader in his preface:

All artwork. literature, science, and historical references in this novel are real.”

The action accelerates in the end, with a twist of loyalties, but at times the plot wallows in Brown’s detailed background information.  As a good friend advised me – “if you liked his (Brown’s) other books, you’ll like this one” – different setting, exciting chase, lessons on history and art – same storyline.

The Light in the Ruins

9780385534819_p0_v1_s260x420Chris Bohjalian’s Light in the Ruins mixes a police procedural mystery with the horrors of war and a tale of revenge.  The gore of murdered corpses with hearts carved out of bodies sharply contrasts with the beauty of Florence and the surrounding Tuscan countryside.

The narrative alternates between the 1940s war as the Nazis gradually overwhelmed Italy and Mussolini’s Blackshirts, and a decade later in 1955 when a woman police detective investigates the brutal killing of the Rosati family.  Serafina, the only woman on the Italian police force who carries a gun, links the two timeframes by her participation as a young Italian underground rebel during the war.  The Rosati’s, wealthy landowners with a noble title and the target of the crazed killer, supported both the Nazis and the rebels during the war.  Antonio, the Rosati patriarch notes:

“We make compromises. We look the other way.  Then, when it’s over, we can’t look at ourselves in the mirror.”

Bohjalian cleverly inserts the voice of the killer at the beginning of chapters, teasing readers with the possibility of the identity.  At one point, the red herring is obvious when the killer notes that no one had assumed he is a woman.  No spoilers here, but, like all of Bojhalian’s stories, the solution is a let-down.  Nevertheless, to his credit, he neatly ties up all the loose plot lines, and everyone is accounted for in the ending.

Etruscan pendant with swastika symbols

Etruscan pendant with swastika symbols

Despite the anticlimactic ending, I enjoyed the suspense along the way, and the references to Italian art, the Uffizi Gallery, and Etruscan ruins.  The Rosati land includes an archeological discovery of an Etruscan tomb, where the Nazis are looking for a swastika among the ancient wall drawings.  That symbol does appear in Etruscan art, and has an older, more positive meaning than is ascribed to it today because of Hitler’s adoption of those crossed lines.

The glimpses into the war’s effect on Italians who seemed more concerned about preserving their art and lifestyle than fighting is balanced by the underground “partisans.”  Bohjalian noted his inspiration for the book came from a diary by Marchese Iris Origo, looking back on the war and the devastation to her lands – War in Val d’Orica  – a memoir that might be worth finding.

The Light in the Ruins will keep you riveted, whether you like to solve mysteries,  immerse yourself in historical drama, revel in the beauty of the Tuscan countryside  – or all of the above.

More reviews of Bohjalian books: