Florida represents sunshine and promise to most people but not young Alice Fivey. After her father's drowning death (his car swerved off the road one spring day), her mother is institutionalized in a sanitorium, leaving Alice to spend her formative years with relatives and to make sense of the world on her own. Less a novel, Florida is a series of thumbnail vignettes laced with pain. Alice uses "Florida" much as a worrying stone, turning the same themes and sores over and over, struggling to find comfort and understanding in events that are bigger than she is. Her mother's betrayal by withdrawal is documented in the lists and descriptions of possessions, most particularly clothes, that have been given away, taking with them Alice's memories. The novel leaves the reader in a curious state of knowing and not knowing, which, while an effective mirror of Alice's world, never allows the reader to empathize truly with the characters. One seems to be peering through disjointed prose pieces, trying to seek understanding of what really destroyed Alice and her family. Though it resonates with the pain of living with mental illness and as such may be of interest to those who understand its impact on families, as a novel it is of marginal interest to general library collections.-Caroline M. Hallsworth, City of Greater Sudbury, Ont. Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Often brilliantly written if far too brief first novel from Schutt (Nightwork, stories: 2000) about a dotty AWOL mother and her young daughter set adrift among rich relatives in the Midwest To narrator Alice, "Florida" signifies the hopeful period before her father died in a car accident, the dream of sunshine and good times that her flighty, pampered mother, also named Alice, recalled as she worked on her winter tan in a sunfoil bed. By the time Alice is ten, Mother has run through a succession of abusive men she refers to collectively as "Walter," and her own private Florida becomes the refuge she takes in the sanitarium for the rest of her daughter's childhood. Mother's desertion leaves Alice in the care of wealthy relatives who live in various houses along a lake in the chilly "land-of-lakes state." First, she's stuck with stingy, proprietary Aunt Frances and flashy, adventurous Uncle Billy; only their loyal uncomplaining driver Arthur displays real fondness for Alice. As a teenager, she lives in the fabulously appointed Big House of her aged Nonna, wheelchair-bound and mute after a stroke. Schutt's narrative is made up of elegant, sometimes maddeningly elliptical vignettes repetitively entitled "Mother" or "Arthur" or "The Big House." These furnish tidbits of memory about each character or place: Uncle Billy takes the family along "prospecting" in Arizona, Nonna reveals that she never had any room in her heart for her wayward daughter. Schutt has an ear for marvelous, startling sentences. "The brown yolks of his eyes had broken and smeared to a dog-wild and wounded gaze," she writes of one Walter; young Alice's high-school teacher, Mr. Early, the first to encourage her to write, isdescribed as "pinball body, angry nose and bald spot." Unfortunately, the underdeveloped second part, following Alice to New York to teach literature while Mother gradually deteriorates in homes in California, never holds together. Still, despite the weaknesses: a dazzling start for a writer we want to hear from again.
From the Publisher
PRAISE FOR FLORIDA
"This slender book grows plump on language . . . Florida, like family, is a land where cruelty and tenderness can be nearly indistinguishable and the border between love and rage too often disappears."Newsday
"The luxury of this debut novel is its rich, descriptive language. It's harnessed with powerful simplicity."The Christian Science Monitor
Read an Excerpt
One winter afternoonan entire winterit was my father who was taking us. Father and Mother and I, we were going to Floridawho knew for how long? I listened in at the breakfast table whenever I heard talk of sunshine. I asked questions about our living there that made them smile. We all smiled a lot at the breakfast table. We ate sectioned fruit capped with bleedy maraschinosmy favorite! The squeezed juice of the grapefruit was grainy with sugar and pulpy, sweet, pink. "Could I have more?" I asked, and my father said sure. In Florida, he said it was good health all the time. No winter coats in Florida, no boots, no chains, no salt, no plows and shovels. In the balmy state of Florida, fruit fell in the meanest yard. Sweets, nuts, saltwater taffies in seashell colors. In the Florida we were headed for the afternoon was swizzled drinks and cherries to eat, stem and all: "Here's to you, here's to me, here's to our new home!" One winter afternoon in our favorite restaurant, there was Florida in our future while I was licking at the foam on the fluted glass, biting the rind and licking sugar, waiting for what was promised: the maraschino cherry, ever-sweet every time.