My Last Inno­cent Year

By – February 6, 2023

The year is 1998. The pres­i­dent is under inves­ti­ga­tion for sex­u­al mis­con­duct. Themes of gen­der, pow­er, and sex dom­i­nate the nation­al con­ver­sa­tion. And on col­lege cam­pus­es, women are agi­tat­ing for jus­tice and respect. This is the land­scape in which we meet Isabel Rosen, a senior at Wilder Col­lege, an elite lib­er­al arts school in New Eng­land. Isabel, a New York­er whose father runs an old-school appe­tiz­ing store on the Low­er East Side, is a fish out of water among her afflu­ent, goy­ishe class­mates. An aspir­ing writer, she con­tributes to bitch slap, her best friend Debra’s rad­i­cal fem­i­nist jour­nal, but she doesn’t share her friend’s rev­o­lu­tion­ary zeal. In the open­ing of the nov­el, Isabel has unpleas­ant sex with her friend Zev. After con­fid­ing in Debra about it, Debra drags Isabel to Zev’s dorm and paints rapist” across his door. Didn’t your moth­er ever warn you about Israeli guys?” Debra asks, con­vinced she knows exact­ly how things work between men and women. Isabel, queasy after the rush of con­fronta­tion sub­sides, is not so cer­tain. Some­thing hap­pened between her and Zev, but she isn’t sure what. It’s an unre­solved inci­dent that casts a shad­ow over this mov­ing, skill­ful­ly struc­tured text, tee­ing up its cen­tral theme: that there’s a dark mys­tery at the heart of love, one that not even grow­ing old­er and wis­er can solve.

Post-Zev, Isabel becomes enam­ored with her writ­ing teacher, R.H. Con­nel­ly, a wun­derkind poet now reduced to cov­er­ing school board meet­ings” at a local paper and sub­bing in for pro­fes­sors on leave. Con­nel­ly is cat­nip to a young Eng­lish major — sexy, dynam­ic, and full of praise for Isabel’s tal­ent. As their rela­tion­ship deep­ens, Isabel’s class­mates and friends recede from the sto­ry, replaced by a focus on Con­nel­ly and two aca­d­e­m­ic col­leagues locked in an acri­mo­nious divorce. It’s a cam­pus nov­el more inter­est­ed in the fac­ul­ty than the stu­dents, such that Isabel’s peers can come across as under­de­vel­oped. That said, Florin writes well about bro­ken, com­pli­cat­ed grownups as seen through a young person’s eyes. Her depic­tions of Isabel’s par­ents — her dili­gent, prag­mat­ic father and thwart­ed, artis­tic moth­er — are rich with detail. Isabel’s own char­ac­ter­i­za­tion can be a lit­tle vague, but that’s also a fea­ture of her age.

As Isabel becomes increas­ing­ly entan­gled with the adults in her orbit, the sto­ry hur­tles toward its con­clu­sion. She finds that she too must make dif­fi­cult, com­pro­mis­ing choic­es. Though the nov­el is pep­pered with nineties ref­er­ences, its focus on class, fem­i­nism, and sex­u­al pol­i­tics is high­ly rel­e­vant to the cur­rent moment. When faced with a mis­take, Isabel’s father says, 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.” Florin sug­gests that grow­ing up means fac­ing con­se­quences we can’t fix — and liv­ing with them as best we can.

Discussion Questions

Cour­tesy of Daisy Alpert Florin