Friday, May 30, 2008


In 2004 when the National Book Award finalists for fiction were announced there was much grumbling in the literary world. The finalists were all women, and none was widely read. The New York Times critic Edward Wyatt complained that Christine Schutt's first novel Florida had been read by only about 150 people. In an interview two weeks later with Deborah Solomon, Schutt set the number slightly higher - “at least 1,099 copies”. Schutt didn't win the award – it went to the equally obscure Lily Tuck for The News from Paraguay – but her novel found a wider audience and was even published in paperback.

The story is told in a fragmented, impressionistic way by the narrator Alice Fivey. Alice lives with her eccentric widowed mother until the age of ten, when her mother's increasingly unstable behavior causes her relatives to pack her off to “the San” in Florida. Alice is then shuttled between various wealthy relatives. The childless Uncle Billy and Aunt Frances take her in, but they are far more interested in their possessions than in their niece. She also lives with her bedridden grandmother who is unable to speak due to a stroke. Her one anchor is Arthur, the family retainer who offers Alice the valuable gift of his time and attention. Eventually the adult Alice reconnects with her mother, and attempts to sort out her childhood memories.

What separates Florida from the standard melodramatic tale of an orphaned and abandoned child is the beauty of Schutt's prose. The spare, elegant chapters often read like poems, When the ten year old Alice describes the scenes of her childhood, they have a muddled dream-like quality that rings true. The adult Alice's voice is more clear-eyed and more wry, but adult and child voices share the same lonely intensity. This short spare book is a tribute to the power of language and memory.

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