My Last Innocent Year by debut author Daisy Alpert Florin, is an intimate, insightful novel; a 21-year-old’s first-person account depicting her last semester at small town Wilder College in 1998 New Hampshire. The coming-of-age story concerns a fish-out-of-water New Yorker named Isabel Rosen, who’s finding her footing in an elite liberal arts environment where she hopes to become a writer.
As an only child, four years after her unconventional mother’s death, Isabel remains devoted to her hard-working father who owns and operates Rosen’s Appetizing Store in the Jewish neighborhood in which she was raised. Her childhood’s insular world was comprised of, “Orchard Street, Essex Street, Rivington, Delancey, streets, where Jewish immigrants had settled at the turn of the century, dragging their history and sadness behind them.”
As she navigates the road to adulthood on the grounds of Wilder College, Isabel is haunted by the memory of her parents’ tenuous marriage. They’d met when the 25-year-old Vivian walked into Rosen’s Appetizing, when Abe Rosen was 40. Their marriage seemed to be a union of opposites. “My parents’ marriage had always been a mystery to me,” Isabel says. In contemplating her deceased mother, she explains, “My mother was an artist, and her art always came first. . . . She seemed to be searching for something in her work, a life beyond Rosen’s Appetizing and the Lower East Side. Escape. She wouldn’t have been the first artist looking for that.”
The story begins with an ambiguous, sexual experience between Isabel and Zev Neman, an Israeli student at Wilder who might have been too forceful—Isabel lacks the experience to discern. When she recounts the episode to one of her roommates, Debra Moskowitz—a budding, subversive activist—events are set in motion by Debra to get Zev Neman back, no matter the questionable tactics. Isabel is tolerant of Debra when she discovers Debra suffers from episodic depression. Isabel realizes, “I’d seen Debra at her worst, and I’ve found that is often what binds women together. Men admire each other when they are at their best, but women enjoy meeting each other in pits of despair.”
Joanna Maxwell has a troubled marriage. A professor of English studies, she’s married to unstable professor Tom Fisher, with whom she shares a young child named Igraine. Due to their upending divorce proceedings, Joanna forfeits teaching the creative writing class Isabel is scheduled to take to last minute substitute, Professor Conneely. Isabel later reflects, “Connelly was older, married, my professor—there were rules about these things. Later, I would understand there were not rules about these things and would run from inconvenient attraction to a colleagues’ or a friend’s boyfriend, as quickly as possible.”
Professor Connelly was once a celebrated poet. Now in his early 40s, he writes a column in a small-town newspaper and never discusses his failed attempt at writing a novel. Good looking in an unselfconscious way, Isabel attends his writing class and says in hindsight, “I’d had crushes before and I would have them again, but there was something different about this.” “There is something that passed between two people when there was a mutual attraction, a frisson.”
When the taboo attraction between Isabel and Professor Connelly transcends the classroom, parallel lines are drawn with the public scandal between Monica Lewinsky and President Clinton, occurring in the same timeframe, and unsettling Isabel with fear of an unequal power balance. Professor Connelly encourages Isabel to be clear about what she wants, so “there are no misunderstandings.” In hindsight, Isabel says, “I understood well enough what had happened, understood too why he had asked me, back at the beginning of things . . . He had seen the end embedded in the beginning in a way I hadn’t. It was how adults behaved, I knew now, and I would never again not see the world in the same way.”
My Last Innocent Year is written with confessional intimacy verging on stream-of-consciousness storytelling. It’s softly delivered coming-of-age themes pertain to such questions as individuality versus conformity; desire versus boundaries; and passion versus practicality along the road of growing into one’s own. A tale to please YA readers and well beyond, it’s a poignant story that doesn’t shy from sharp edges, universal, timeless, and timely.
Claire Fullerton’s most recent novels are Little Tea and multiple award winner, Mourning Dove. Honors include the Independent Book Publishers Book Award Silver Medal for Regional Fiction, the Reader’s Favorite for Southern Fiction Bronze Medal and various other literary awards.
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