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'Florence Gordon' may be the most magnificent fictional character you will meet this year

Florence Gordon is the grouchy old feminist that no reader will be able to resist.

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Florence Gordon
By Brian Morton
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
320 pp.

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Forget grumpy old men. I’ll take a cranky old woman any day. 

Any “Olive Kitteridge” fans longing for another cantankerous, tough-minded heroine, have I got a book for you.

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Florence Gordon, Brian Morton’s fifth novel, stars a women’s rights activist working on her seventh book and trying to dodge her worshipful daughter-in-law and less-worshipful granddaughter, who are spending the summer in New York. 

“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?” the book opens.

“Maybe it was three strikes, because not only was she an intellectual, she was a feminist. Which meant that if she managed to finish this book, reviewers would inevitably dismiss it as ‘strident’ and ‘shrill,’” she thinks. “If you’re an old feminist, anything you say, by definition, is strident and shrill.”

By the novel’s third paragraph, I was ready to hug Florence – but that would just make her recoil in horror. (Many things make Florence recoil, such as, say, nature. She spent a week in the country once, the New Yorker recalls, “and it had been the most horrifying week of her life.”)

“People, Florence thought as she put on her shoes” for what she thinks is an errand of mercy for a friend but is actually a misguided attempt to throw her a surprise party. “What do I need them for again?”

However, Florence finds herself having to make room for at least a few people over the course of the summer.

First among them is Emily, her only granddaughter, whose name she gets wrong the first time they get together in New York. Janine, Emily’s mother, is completely distracted by the crush she has on her boss. Meanwhile, Emily’s dad, Daniel, a Seattle police officer taking his first extended break in 20 years, was just thinking they’d all have a nice summer together.

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Florence has a low opinion of the young (of course, she has a low opinion of almost everybody), but she finds herself strangely interested in her teenaged granddaughter.

“She had always found it curious, the way that even sophisticated younger people liked to speak of ‘destiny,’ liked to tell themselves that ‘there’s a reason for everything.’ The way they married a quirky individuality with a passive acceptance of things as they are.”

Florence has no time for passivity. She is determined to live life on her own terms, no matter the cost.

Emily is a vegan who reads 19th-century novels such as “Middlemarch” and “The Charterhouse of Parma” (and “Little Women” if she’s in need of comfort). At this point, the 19-year-old isn’t sure she even has a code.

“What she thought she believed in was something she’d been thinking about since she’d read ‘Middlemarch’: the idea that each person is the center of a world,” Emily thinks. “She didn’t know what to do with it; she didn’t know where it led; but it kept coming back to her mind.”

Florence, who is having some trouble with her hands and her left foot, grudgingly hires Emily to be her assistant – on a trial basis.

“Over the years, Florence had had many assistants, and the main thing she’d learned was that people were stunningly inept.”

At first, Emily is miffed that her grandmother isn’t showering her efforts with praise. And appalled by Florence’s lack of even basic manners. Then there’s Florence’s penchant for lecturing strangers on the street. “One day she told a beggar to stand up straight and look people in the eye as he begged.”

She then delivers this rousing takedown of a line-jumper, which deserves its own billboard: “You don’t throw your trash on the street, you don’t serve yourself first, and you don’t cut in line. It’s called civilization."

As Emily starts reading some of the work Florence has her photocopy, she starts to value what Florence once called “ ‘a militant ethic of overcoming.’ The phrase, Emily thought, could have described Florence herself,” Morton writes. “She was always outraged, always indignant about something she’d read or heard or seen, yet there was something about her that was forever hopeful.”

Emily is at first bemused by her iconoclastic grandmother, but the growing bond between the two is, along with Florence herself, the best thing about the novel. Eventually, she finds herself wanting to see what Florence will do next, rather than cringing in embarrassment – going so far as to follow Florence into the middle of a protest. “She was curious about observing Florence in her natural habitat, the protest meeting.”

Morton is a quietly confident writer, who imbues even throwaway lines of dialogue with crackling wit, and whose characters banter like actors in a screwball comedy.

Take Janine and Daniel on the late Christopher Hitchens: “Christopher Hitchens doesn’t like girls.”

“He likes girls. He just doesn’t think girls have a sense of humor.”

“If you don’t think girls have a sense of humor, you don’t like girls.”

Morton, without ever seeming to worry about it, is a terrific counterargument to those who claim that men can’t write believable female characters.

Readers uncomfortable with such things should take note that they will encounter a nasty medical diagnosis in this book. But otherwise, this is one of the most terrific novels you will encounter this fall.

With “Florence Gordon,” Morton has written a heartfelt paean to a “gloriously difficult woman.”