My Last Innocent Year: Daisy Alpert Florin

“Here’s what I do when I’ve made a mistake. First, I ask myself if it’s something I can fix. And if it’s not, I ask myself if it’s something I can live with.”

While the Monica Lewinsky scandal heats up in Washington, on the campus of Wilder College in New Hampshire, 21-year-old Isabel Rosen, a girl who hails from a modest New York background, completes her senior year. It’s a year that will shape her permanently, but not in ways she expects. One night in December, leaving the library accompanied by Zev, another Jewish student, she agrees to go to his room. Isabel hazily imagines them with a future together–not that that is something she ardently desires; it’s more than she tests out the possibility in her mind. Kissing leads to sex. She asks him to “slow down,” but he says he “can’t.” Zev’s aggressive tactics leave Isabel confused. She feels “as though [she’d] been dropped in the middle of a sexual encounter that had been going on for a while.”

Later that night Debra, Isabel’s roommate, asks Isabel what’s wrong. Isabel is aware that since the encounter “something hurt, deep in some place I couldn’t see or name,” but at the same time she “couldn’t frame what had happened with Zev […] There was a darkness to it, a heaviness.” Debra already deeply dislikes Zev. She is the founder of Bitch SlapWilder’s first and only feminist journal.” Isabel insists that Zev didn’t “force” her but Debra says Zev is a rapist. Debra leads Isabel into taking action.

At this point in the novel, I expected to read a novel about sexual consent or the fallout from the incident. Interestingly, the plot led away from the sexual encounter and continues with Isabel’s academic career. Isabel is completing her thesis on Edith Wharton. Her advisor, Tom Fisher, is married to Joanna Maxwell, the head of the English Department. Tom and Joanna are getting divorced and that disrupts Isabel’s thesis plans. Tom becomes increasingly unreliable, and poet/professor/reporter Connelly takes over one of Joanna’s classes. It’s a creative writing class, and Isabel finds herself drawn to Connelly. They begin an affair. …

The rain picked up. I pictured a hallway lined with doors I couldn’t open, things I needed trapped behind them: means of rescue, survival, escape. My lover put himself inside me and unlocked everything I’d ever had there: shame, fear. [..] I no longer knew what was inside me anymore, only that I never again found a door I couldn’t open. He held the key to my undoing and I let him undo everything.

The sexual encounter between Isabel and Zev opens My Last Innocent Year, and it is certainly topical and serious enough for us to expect this to carry the entire novel. But author Daisy Alpert Florin, and this is, incidentally, her debut novel, moves away from the topic of consent, or at least seems to. As the affair with Connelly continues and becomes increasingly more serious, I was unsure how the Isabel/Zev encounter wove into the tale. I wondered if it was added to the story for topical value, but even as that occured to me, the lack of a conclusion about exactly what took place rape vs consent was oddly absent. The absence of a solution increased the opaque quality of much of what occurs in the novel. Most blurbs contain the non-consensual sex aspect of the book, and yet really that is not what the book is about. Beginning with sex with Zev, Isabel finds herself thrown in a series of morally complex situations; her life and experiences so far have not prepared her for the moral consequences of her actions. Ultimately this is the story of a young woman who has yet to form her opinions about the world. She has yet to learn to read the warning signs. She is vulnerable.

The novel is told by Isabel in retrospect, so some of the story with its themes of inexperience and naivete is told now with the voice of experience. Daisy Alpert Florin follows Isabel into middle age, so we see how the path that she took at Wilder influenced the rest of her life, and at one point, as we see Isabel later in life, she admits that her “need to link sex with secrecy was born that spring.” The denouement, which I shan’t reveal, seemed a little too dramatic and out-of-line with the rest of the novel, but that said, this is a remarkable debut novel. It’s understated emotional content packs a powerful punch.

After finishing the novel, I chewed over its structure. Initially I anticipated that the Zev incident would propel the rest of the plot, but instead it served as a door into the rest of the story. It is a bold move to throw out a topical subject such as this and then maneuver it to the starting line. (And incidentally, Isabel does arrive at a conclusion about sex with Zev by the end of the novel.) Underlying the tale is the implicit idea of the complications of sex. Two people approach sex imagining they are on the same page–but when the final chapter is written on any sexual relationship, it becomes clear that those involved had their own versions, their own stories. Zev is insensitive to Isabel, and without an iota of intimacy, he uses her in the most intimate way. But what of Connelly? This is a relationship of full consent, yet in spite of that, does Isabel have any idea what she is getting into?

Review copy.

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