The mid-1990s seems like a pretty good era in retrospect. America was in the middle of the longest period of economic growth in history. Global pandemics were the stuff of science fiction, the Great Depression was a history lesson, the threat of global nuclear war seemingly had collapsed along with the Berlin Wall, and the numbers 9/11 were still just for calling in an emergency.
On the other hand, the mid-1990s weren’t so great for some people. Monica Lewinsky, for instance, probably has had better decades. Likewise, Isabel, the protagonist and narrator of Daisy Alpert Florin’s debut novel, My Last Innocent Year, might not have had such a great decade. Since then, societal attitudes toward consent and sexual assault have improved, but Florin’s novel questions how far we’ve really come.
On the last night of Isabel’s penultimate college semester at a small liberal arts college in New Hampshire, she finds herself in the dorm room of her friend Zev, whom she met in the first days of college. Isabel, narrating from the present many years in the future, explains that “it was hard to say how I ended up in Zev Newman’s dorm room.” Zev and Isabel kiss. She feels indifferent, “mainly relieved to know which way the night was going.” And then a few minutes later, Zev pressures her into having sex.
Isabel’s consent to intercourse was ambiguous at best. Even though she is narrating her own story, she seems uncertain how she felt at the time. In the minutes following, her roommate, Debra, encourages her to confront the issue by spray painting “rapist” on Zev’s door. The two women are caught in the act.
This opening scene sets up the remainder of the book, largely unfolding over the course of Isabel’s final semester. Concurrently, Bill Clinton’s sexual scandals unfold in the background. Isabel reflects throughout the novel on how Monica Lewinsky is being treated by the press, the public, and her lover, drawing parallels between the national news story and her own personal drama.
Immediately on her return from the semester break, Isabel is summoned to the dean’s office. Like so many college administrations in the 1990s, the dean is willing to overlook her vandalism in exchange for overlooking the allegations against Zev, quietly encouraging Isabel to reconsider her position. The whole scenario echoes the experience of Emma Sulkowicz, the Columbia senior who, throughout the 2014–2015 academic year, dragged a mattress around behind her to symbolize the weight she carried following an on-campus rape. The university dismissed the allegations formally through an official inquiry process citing a lack of evidence beyond the victim’s accusation. And no doubt it reflects the experiences of countless women in colleges before and since.
Isabel discovers Zev has gone to work waging a public relations campaign with their peer group, not unlike Clinton’s attempts to save his presidency. Isabel’s friend Andy can’t help but crack a joke about the assault, effectively ending their friendship. Eventually Isabel is seduced by her professor, a much older man, again reflecting both the age and power dynamic of the Presidential affair. The relationship is perhaps the most poorly kept secret on campus.
The novel’s central premise focuses on Isabel learning how to navigate her relationships with men, and the dangers they present. Zev assaults her. Andy wants her to validate his writing. Connolly, the professor, seduces her. None of Isabel’s relationships with men are particularly healthy, even when they are consensual.
Zev’s assault has as many consequences for Isabel as for him. Connolly hesitates in sleeping with Isabel, claiming he wants her to be certain of what she wants. He insists that she verbalize her desires, framing it as though he wants her to understand her own desire. The subtext though is he understands the dangers of sleeping with a student. He knows he is in the wrong. He’s trying to provide himself cover, not because he wants consent, but because he is afraid of the consequences. In this respect, he’s quite different from the younger men Isabel interacts with, but perhaps more similar to Bill Clinton.
Isabel’s challenging relationship with men speaks to a broader theme of a young woman trying to understand her place in the world. She was raised in a secular Jewish household, from a city filled with Jewish people, but ends up at an expensive, WASP-filled private college with few other Jewish students. Nevertheless, she ends up in an intimate relationship with an Israeli. Debra jokes with her after the encounter with Zev that her mother should have warned Isabel about Israeli men. There seems, in this passing comment, a critique of Zionism among Jewish Americans, although this tension is not deeply explored.
But what it does illustrate is Isabel’s uneasy relationship with religion. She and her father are not especially religious, which is a bit ironic since he is deeply entrenched in Jewish culture by way of the shop he owns. A running gag throughout the novel is her need to explain her father’s business. He operates an appetizing store, better known to goy as a meatless delicatessen, the type focused on fish. Examples of the type are Russ & Daughters or Barney Greengrass. Under kosher tradition, the sale of dairy and meat in the same location is prohibited.
Moreover, the store is another source of confusing identity for Isabel. Her father is struggling to maintain the business. His clientele has largely moved to the suburbs. And he’s sacrificed to send Isabel to college so she would have other options for a career. Yet they both seem anxious about the decision for her to take a job as a writer, and for Isabel’s cousin to wend his way into partial ownership of the store.
At its heart, My Last Innocent Year is a campus novel, and it hits many of the same notes as classics of the genre. The title suggests Isabel understands now, reflecting back, that her senior year of college was the last moment of childhood. From this time forward, she must find her own identity, and act as an adult.
The sexual assault, or the consensual sexual relationship—even she isn’t quite sure—is not the defining moment where she lost her innocence. Instead, it is the realization she must find a place for herself and define who she is rather than rely on the definitions provided by her relationship to other people. She cannot remain in the cradle of the campus. By the end of Florin’s masterful bildungsroman, our narrator is not somebody’s daughter, she is not someone’s victim, she is not someone’s lover. She is Isabel, and she defines her own story.
My Last Innocent Year
By Daisy Alpert Florin
Henry Holt & Company
Published February 14, 2023
Ian MacAllen is the author of Red Sauce: How Italian Food Became American, forthcoming from Rowman & Littlefield in 2022. His writing has appeared in Chicago Review of Books, The Rumpus, The Offing, Electric Literature, Vol 1. Brooklyn, and elsewhere. He serves as the Deputy Editor of The Rumpus, holds an MA in English from Rutgers University, tweets @IanMacAllen and is online at IanMacAllen.com.