Christine Schutt

"Florida"

(Reviewed by Mary Whipple DEC 12, 2005)

"Mother had used overcooked bacon for a bookmark or a hair pin, stick of gum, sucker-stick, twig—whatever was at hand. Her books were paperbacks, she said, and it didn't matter how the water-swelled pages fanned, dried, stuck together. 'Paperbacks,' she always said, 'a great invention.' I read the way my mother did. I was impatient…Books, an orphan's consolation."

Nominated for the National Book Award for this debut novel, Christine Schutt creates an impressionistic and moving picture of young Alice Fivey's difficult life from age five, when she was left fatherless, until she is in her thirties. She lives with her extravagant mother in a comfortable environment until her mother's mental problems lead to her stay in "the San" within a year. Now motherless, too, Alice is shuttled among family members, living at various times with her Uncle Billy and Aunt Frances, who systematically appropriate her mother's belongings, and for several years with Nonna, her grandmother, bedridden and unable to talk due to a stroke, ironically some of her happiest years.

Short, perfectly rendered memories of the past come unbidden to the growing Alice, filled with the kinds of descriptive detail which children remember so vividly. As Alice tries to reconcile what she learns in the present with those recollections of the past, she confronts and tries to understand life's big issues—twists of fate, illness, death, and love and their effects on families and one's dreams. Living with an aunt and uncle whose primary interest seems to be in collecting goods, and with a silent grandmother who cannot supervise her during her teens, she grows up without strong family role models and even less guidance. She does, however, form several meaningful friendships which become even more important in the long term.

Arthur, a family retainer and currently Uncle Billy's driver, is a stout, ugly man who would do anything for Alice, though she, at first, snubs him. "I didn't want anyone to see Arthur and to think he was my father. My father was handsome." Yet Arthur attends to Alice, pays attention to her, and makes her feel important, simply by spending time with her. When she lives with Nonna, she sees less of Arthur, but learns folk wisdom and a few stories about her family from Arlette, who works for her grandmother. In school, Mr. Early, her English teacher encourages her poetic streak and her writing talent, and she stays in touch with him long after she leaves school.

Eventually, Alice, in her twenties, reconnects with her mother, now living in California, and as she tries to untangle her mother's recollections so that she can learn something about her father, she also learns much about her mother and about the family dynamics involving her parents, her grandmother, and her aunt and uncle.

Several symbols repeat throughout the novel. After Alice's father died, her mother had a relationship with someone named Walter, a self-destructive relationship which resulted in her institutionalization. Forever after, Alice refers to the men in bad relationships, including her own, as "Walter." Her parents once wanted to take her to Florida because "In Florida…it was good health all the time," and Florida becomes a symbol for the good life. Arthur even builds "Florida" for her mother, a sun-tanning box in which her mother can suntan during the winter. Throughout the novel, goodness is symbolized by Arthur, the humble man whose kindness and desire to serve never flags.

As time and death take their toll, Alice grows up, gradually learning that "Nothing held its shape but blew away." She, like all of us, regrets her missed opportunities to tell those she loves how much they mean to her, and she dreams about all the might-have-beens, wishing that she could "look at the clock to see how much time you have left."

Despite its emotional impact, the novel avoids melodrama and excessive emotion. Slowly, through the jewel-like pieces of Alice's narrative, which jumps around in time, Schutt assembles a picture of Alice, her life and family, and her special friends—Arthur and Mr. Early—while illustrating her growing independence and strength. Presented in spare, simple style, the novel uses the perfect scene, the unique observation about life, and the poetic detail to flesh out and bring to life the story of Alice and her family.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 7 reviews


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About the Author:

Christine SchuttChristine Schutt is the author of a short-story collection, Nightwork, chosen by poet John Ashbery as the best book of 1996 for the Times Literary Supplement. She earned an MFA in Creative Writing from Columbia University and studied at Barnard with novelist and critic Elizabeth Hardwick. She lives in New York City.

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