My book club met tonight, and it turned out that four of us had coincidentally just finished the same book (not the one we were discussing). That book is My Last Innocent Year by Daisy Alpert Florin, and out of the four of us, three of us loved it and one of us didn’t. I was – as usual – the contrarian, and I can’t figure out why I had such a different reaction to it than they did.
Why I picked it up: I was intrigued by this new novel about a student-professor relationship at a small New England college.
Isabel is a senior at a fictional college, studying English and hoping to become a writer. When My Last Innocent Year opens, she has had an unsatisfying sexual encounter with another student, which her roommate becomes convinced was nonconsensual and goes after the student for. Shortly afterwards, Isabel begins an affair with her married writing professor, which continues until she graduates. Not much else really happens in the book, which is intended to explore issues of consent and power and whether a relationship like Isabel and her professor’s can ever really be consensual. Setting the book in 1998 against the backdrop of the Clinton-Lewinsky hearings only adds to the swirl.
Here are my issues with My Last Innocent Year. First of all, it was sort of boring. It meanders its way through Isabel’s senior year, and with the exception of her affair, nothing much else happens. Second, the affair is written about clinically and without much emotion. I didn’t really buy Isabel’s emotional connection to the professor, nor did she express any remorse or regret over the affair. She claims that the relationship deeply affected her throughout her life, suggesting, for example, that she henceforth always equated sex with secrecy. But I just didn’t buy it. I’ve read this story before, most effectively in My Dark Vanessa, which I found so much more compelling. Third, I had trouble connecting to Isabel, who was pretty self-absorbed and not terribly considerate of anyone around her. It pains me to be so dismissive a book on this topic, but this one just didn’t work for me.
That said, my three friends really liked My Last Innocent Year. They definitely bought into the relationship and were persuaded of its negative impact on Isabel’s future. I wonder if it was an issue of narration. I did this one on audio, and perhaps the performance by Sarah Bierstock was what didn’t work for me. She didn’t sound very serious or emotionally affected, which made the whole book feel less substantive. I’d recommend reading it in print, in case that was the deciding factor here.
My Last Innocent Year was the 14th book of 2023.