Book of the Month: My Last Innocent Year By Daisy Alpert Florin

Another Book of the Month! Welcome. The book of this month is My last Innocent Year by Doris Alpert Florin.

I'm going to start out by saying, I first heard about this book on TwoNightStands. It was one of their best books of 2023. And it did not disappoint.

It starts out describing a sexual assault (there is a WHOLE conversation online about whether that's what it was. It was something though) and just when you think that's what the novel is about, it surprises you by taking you on a far more complex and in-depth story. It's a coming of age story of Isabel, a Jewish girl from the pre-hipster era of the Lower East Side. Her father, who sells herring and smoked fish, struggles to get her to a prestigious, Ivy League College in New England, and sure enough, she finds her way in this unfamiliar territory where she almost makes it out before her world starts to shake. When it does, part of what rattles is the economic disparity between herself and her classmates, which only becomes so blatant in the countdown towards graduation. 

It had always been there, of course, the silent drumbeat to everything, but while we were here we all lived in the same crappy apartments, ate at the same restaurants and were all in service to the same goal — or so I’d thought. But now I saw that it had always been about money, and those who’d spent their time here with that in mind were the ones with all the answers, while the rest of us were left scrounging.”

Something else rattles: she's caught up in a web of power abuse and academic drama among faculty no one could have seen coming. And yet, she must deal with the death of her mother (which happened the summer before she started college). This loss, long ago as it was, still drowns her on days she dares to think about it. Her father, Abe, and his poor financial-decision making puts Isabel even further into turmoil.

It's a beautiful novel. I practically read this in two sittings. Knowing me and how restless I am, this is practically a miracle. It's set in the 1990s and the author intertwines a lot of the happenings with the Bill Clinton scandal (you know, the one involving Monica Lewinsky). And listen, the fact that I called this the Bill Clinton scandal and not the Monica Lewinsky scandal tells us all we need to know about our current world. Although it doesn't always feel like it, we really have evolved. We are more progressive, more rational, and much more advanced than women of past generations. But of course, we are also fighting tooth and nail for these advancements so it's constantly exhausting. A brilliant debut, it's a reminder of how often we fail to recognize ourselves and how easily it is to slip into what you are not. The book was riveting and complex and very full of nuance. This is one of those books that would make a great book club discussion. Daisy Alpert Florin is definitely a writer to watch for because the way she drops you in 1990s New England —with the smear and sweat of privileged white boys (and gals), with the brisk cold and snow enough to drown you, with self-conceited and self-acclaim of prestige — was masterful. I, too, felt like I was in college with Isabel and her silly friends and the blue bloods (hating on them of course) in New Hampshire. The author went to Dartmouth so I'm certain the fictitious Wilder college is modeled after Dartmouth. I could almost poke the ballooned egos of the professors. Eishh.

An important feature of this book is that Isabel tells this story in retrospect, when she is in her forties, and I think that sort of alters her perception. It brings to to question how we remember things AND how our approach to issues shift with age. If I tell a story of some things that happened in my late teens (when I was in college) today, it would be drastically different from how I saw it at the time. 

I can't really think of a specific thing I didn't like about this book. Some characters were obviously vexing (and once you read this book it becomes obvious who they are). Little less obvious was Debra, who was irritating but I chucked it up to being slow in overcoming the teenage angst. After all, who amongst us never thought we had all the answers to rid the world of all its injustices? Ha. And then we grow up. 

To reiterate, I thoroughly enjoyed this book and have no doubt you will too. 



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