“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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