“My Last Innocent Year” by Daisy Alpert Florin

Genre: Literary Fiction/Coming-of-Age My Last Innocent Year
Publisher: Henry Holt and Co.
Pub. Date: February 14, 2023

Daisy Alpert Florin’s debut novel, “My Last Innocent Year,” is a coming-of-age novel set on a college campus near the close of the last century before #MeToo. It’s been a long time since I read a coming-of-age novel that I enjoyed. I often find them sappy, but not this one. Florin’s portrayal of New England student life includes shady college town bars, English department parties, and skinny-dipping, which reads like a stream of consciousness, accurately capturing the confusion and instability of college life, “In sophomore year at a St. Parick’s day party…He had shamrocks painted on his face; as we fucked the green paint dripped down his cheeks. There wasn’t much to say about it…except we decided never to do it again and that somehow we managed to stay friends.”

The story is set against the backdrop of President Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky. Our protagonist, Isabel Rosen, faces more challenges than most. She is a lower-middle-class Jewish student on a scholarship at the prestigious Wilder College, which strongly resembles the real-life Dartmouth College, filled with wealthy Christians. Besides her Saint Patrick’s sexual experiment, Isabel is the least promiscuous of her college girlfriends. She is majoring in English Lit, and her goal is to become a writer.

Throughout the novel, Florin’s character exhibits profound, interceptive ideas. In the library, “I weaved my way slowly through the shelves, rubbing my fingers along the spines pulling out books at random. I loved the way each writer burrowed deep into his or her matter, no matter how obscure, and yet taken together, the books here felt larger than the world.”

This story benefits from the author’s willingness to address young women’s sexuality without passing judgment. Isabel has had two sexual encounters throughout her time in college, and they forever alter the way she remembers those years. First, Florin tackles the confusion between a miscommunication and date rape.  Afterward, the boy asks her, “then why did you come to my dorm room?” She “honestly doesn’t know,” thus she is unable to respond, showing her lack of knowledge  in what to do when “maybe he was a little too rough.” The other happens when an older man seduces her in a Bill and Monica scenario. In her senior year, she began an “affair” with her thesis adviser, a handsome, married creative writing professor. In both experiences, we see the complex power dynamics in sexual relationships.

At graduation, Isabel wonders when a girl becomes a woman. Did it happen “when I confessed my relationship with the professor?” “Is it happening right now, in front of Fayerweather Hall as the sun rose higher into the sky?”  There is beautiful prose throughout the novel. However, the tail end of the story during Isabel’s post-college years. Here the writing feels rushed and clumped together, losing its tone of introspection. Still, this is a poignant coming-of-age story that I recommend to adults and young people as well.

I received this novel at no cost from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

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“To Dare” by Jemma Wayne

Genre: General Fiction/Literary Fiction To Dare
Publisher: Legend Press
Pub. Date: July 1, 2020

This novel explores many themes through a multi-layered style, maybe one too many. You will read about addictions, domestic violence, rape, child abuse, dysfunctional friendships, jealousy, class biases, miscarriage, and claustrophobia. Wayne does a good job in all her themes.  However, I am not sure that they all need to be addressed in one novel. Taking on too much can create a cramped read. Wayne’s astute observations make for a good literary fiction tale. Think the author Ann Patchett. Yet in this novel, the characters’ troubles, written in detailed and lengthy prose, gave off a melodramatic women’s fiction feel, especially the ending. No matter the genre, this story is dark. This reviewer has no problem reading disturbing fiction though others may.

Three women narrate the story. Two are childhood friends and the other is a neighbor to one of them. Their lives are interwoven by chance and proximity.  Simone grew up with money but in adulthood, she lives in poverty. Rebellion against her parents led her to a teenage marriage with a boy who lived in the slums. After his death, drug abuse and loneliness bring her into a disastrous second marriage. This time to a man who is mentally and physically abusive to her and her children. Here the author shines in exploring the reasons for her character’s spiraling downfall where she confuses abuse with love. Through Simone, Wayne does an excellent job of showing the reader the definition of Battered Women’s Syndrome.

We also meet Veronica who is a wealthy teacher.  She and her husband just moved into their dream house. However, she is mentally depressed. The trauma of her miscarriage and the stress of not being able to conceive again are destroying her marriage. Again, Wayne shines in her descriptions of Veronica’s emotions regarding her infertility.  They are good enough to make you wonder if she interviewed couples going through this issue. Then there is Sarah who in the present is a middle-class lawyer married with two children. In Sarah and Veronica’s childhood years, they were best friends. When she re-enters Veronica’s life the adult friendship goes haywire. I compliment the author by nailing their preteen jealousies complete with dangerous dares and power games, which hurt one of them so terribly it left her with claustrophobia.  In the present, both of them revert to their childhood personas.  Here, I thought things became unbelievable. It is hard to swallow that two grown women would have a “Mean Girls” sort of friendship.  It reads like a corny women’s fiction novel.

All three women are fighting their own demons, meaning the reader should be cheering them on. However, I did not. Or I did until the plot began to feel silly to me. When the three female stories are weaved together, rather than enhancing the novel they lose some of their intended punch. I do give the author credit for writing about three often-unlikable female characters. At least, I think that she did this on purpose.  (Spoiler: The tale has an open ending, but hints that the women will do well in their futures), which is usually the case in women’s fiction. Women’s fiction can be done well as it taps into the hopes, fears, and dreams of women today. However, in this novel with its many themes it comes off as excessive, exhausting, and sometimes silly.  This is a shame Wayne is clearly a talented author and I would read her again. I found “To Dare” to be a decent read that with some editing could have been a very good book.

I received this Advance Review Copy (ARC) novel from the publisher at no cost in exchange for an honest review

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