My Last Innocent Year, Daisy Alpert Florin’s debut novel, takes place nearly twenty years before the #MeToo movement took off. Isabel Rosen, at the onset of her last semester at Wilder College, has finally begun to feel like she belongs at the prestigious institution―until a nonconsensual sexual encounter with Zev, someone she considered a friend, leaves her reeling.
A balm arrives in the form of Isabel’s new writing professor, Connelly, a once-famous poet and a man with secrets of his own. Connelly makes Isabel feel worthy, beautiful, talented: all the things she worried she was not. Their affair transforms the foundation of who Isabel thinks she is, for better and worse. As the lives of the adults around her slowly come undone, Isabel learns that the line between youth and adulthood is less defined than she once thought.
Florin delivers an incisive, nuanced take on an all-too-familiar story—one that resonates far beyond the scope of the ’90s. I recently had the pleasure of having a conversation with Florin about her novel, its urgency, and its grayness.
My Last Innocent Year is your debut novel. Why this story? What was it about this story that gave it staying power for you?
It started out really being a meditation on youth. I started to fiddle with the idea shortly after I turned 40, and I just felt like I had passed into this other period of my life, sort of unbeknownst to me. I was now in this post-40 life, and I was like, wait: what happened to all those years? I was trying to look for the seeds of how I had gotten where I was now, and I think a lot of those seeds are planted in college. In that way, it really started as my older self, interrogating a younger version of myself. It’s not an autobiographical novel, but that’s where the idea really started. How would you look back on your early twenties from a vantage point of 20+ years on?
Then there was this idea of how young women’s ambition is sometimes sexualized by older men who might be in a position of power to give them the thing that they want. And I wanted to explore that kind of murky territory therein: how youth would be perceived by an older man in power, how a younger woman might perceive that interest, how she might metabolize it, and have it then become a part of who she ultimately becomes.
I was also interested in the title itself, My Last Innocent Year. The coming-of-age genre is obviously a popular one, and many of those stories depict innocence lost. However, in your novel, the loss of innocence isn’t delivered through straightforward aging, but more through gendered experience. Isabel’s coming-of-age, instead, is shaped in large part by the men around her. How do you think gender complicates the broadly applied ideas of innocence and coming-of-age?
Isabel is definitely affected by a lot of the men in her life. The two most powerful figures in her life, as depicted in the novel, are her father and her professor. I think young women in patriarchal institutions, like college campuses, are looking for validation. We are all looking for validation, but I think for women, you’re often looking for validation from patriarchal institutions like the academy, like professors. I think a woman’s ambition for something, and wanting validation from someone in power, can often become sexualized. So, I wanted to explore that. I think that a lot of women have had this experience of being behind a closed door with a man in a position of power, and there’s something that shifts in the energy of the room, something that just curdles in that moment. And I wanted to take it all the way. So, what if: instead of removing yourself from that situation—dropping that class, quitting that job—you just kind of went with it.
And I think it’s there that Isabel forms a lot of her identity. A lot of what happens in that last semester she carries with her, and so—whether it was damaging to her, or whether it was ultimately valuable—she chooses to believe what Connelly is telling her about her work and her writing and her value. Whether he meant it or not, or whether he had ulterior motives or not, she took his words and used it to excel.
Something that struck me was the various pain points of the main characters, the potential why behind some of their destructive choices. We learn of Isabel’s stealing as a result of her mother dying, just as we learn of her friend Debra’s depression and her intensifying campus protests—not to mention what we eventually learn of both Zev’s and Connelly’s central insecurities, their own pain points. Was this intentional? What does this say about the various pain points many of us carry, and how we each choose to cope with that pain?
I don’t know that it was intentional. When you’re asking a question about a character—like what would make this character have a love affair with her married professor, what would push her into making that choice—I had to look at some of the vulnerabilities that she’s carrying already. She is dealing with unresolved grief, and then there is the—what I would call—non-consensual sexual encounter with Zev at the beginning of the novel. And I think of all these things as kind of chipping away at whatever resolve she might have had to resist this relationship. In terms of the stealing, it’s something that she feels she does not have. There is something that she feels she is missing, and she’s going out to try and find it in some destructive ways.
Does she do anything that other people don’t do? No. I think that we all act out of vulnerabilities that come from things we feel that we’re missing. And in terms of Connelly, his own issues bring him to this point and—when you put these two characters together with their mirrored vulnerabilities—that’s where the conflict happens.
I also noticed the attention paid to both Zev’s and Connelly’s perspectives regarding their behavior towards Isabel. In both conversations, Isabel’s seemingly rendered voiceless by the end. She never really gets a chance in these conversations to offer a rebuttal, to share her own perspective in turn. What was behind your choice to construct these conversations in this way?
I think that the novel is her rebuttal. I think that she ultimately gets a chance to tell the story and respond to the things that have happened to her. You know, there’s that joke that writers make: “Oh, I thought of the perfect thing to say, only it was three weeks afterwards.” I think writers often take a long time to process the things that have happened to them.
So, it is definitely a novel about finding voice. If you look at the first sentence of the book and the last sentence of the book, they both allude to speaking, and I think that Isabel is working through that discovery of voice. And I do see the novel as her ultimate rebuttal.
Relatedly, you have Isabel writing from this older, wiser self, who has a lot more clarity on the situation. I was interested in the fact that, throughout the novel, we have people like Debra, Zev, and Connelly, who all name what these experiences were and were not. However, even though Isabel is writing about these experiences decades later, she still doesn’t name these experiences explicitly.
The book, like I said, did start as me looking back at my youth—and the things I did and didn’t understand, and the things I still don’t understand. I really did not want to come down on one side or the other about what makes an experience consensual or non-consensual. I was very comfortable staying in the grayness of that. But that was definitely the hardest part of the novel for me: not to feel like I was letting anybody off the hook, or forgiving any of the actions, because I wasn’t.
And then at the end of the day, this book was also set in the ’90s. That’s what the ’90s were like. There were no explicit discussions of consent before you went off to college. It wasn’t like your mother sat you down and said: “These are the things you need to know.” Or, at least, not in my experience. You just weren’t really sure what to call things then. And, even if you did know what to call things, there was still a lot of shame around it. Well, if I call it that, do I absolve myself of something? Do I absolve him of something? It remains very, very complicated. Which is why I think people just keep writing about it.
And I think that’s also part of the loss of innocence, right? I think what Isabel is finding out in the course of the novel, and what I have found out in the course of my life, is that there is so much more grayness to life, to adulthood, than you realize as a child. That’s not to say there aren’t situations that are completely black and white, or even to say that the situations in this novel are not black and white. What I’m saying is that I was interested in exploring the grayness and the murkiness, and that the novel I was interested in writing was going to have characters who had a lot of facets to them, who were not all bad or all good.
My next question was actually about your decision to set it in the ’90s, which you just touched on. Regarding these college experiences and dialogue surrounding consent, what do you think has and hasn’t changed in the thirty years since?
The short answer is: because I went to college in the ’90s. And, culturally, we’re looking back at that moment now, and re-examining things that we thought were a given in the ’90s. I started writing the novel in 2015, which was before Trump and before #MeToo. It really was more of a personal exploration at that time. But then, as the culture shifted focus in the last seven or eight years, the ’90s became a really interesting period to re-examine. You know, how we treated Monica Lewinsky as a culture. Or, Britney Spears. And then, the individual women who started to look back at experiences they had had, following the rise of Trump and the #MeToo movement. The novel took on more urgency for me then, and I started to see that my decision to set it in the ’90s was actually really important to the storytelling.
You’ve now published your first novel, a lofty goal that many writers aspire to. What advice would you give to your younger self, when you were first embarking on your writing journey?
I’ll be 50 this year, when the book comes out. So, getting to this point takes a long time in that respect. Also, I started writing the novel in 2015, so that process also has taken me a very long time. But I resonate with the advice that “the novel takes the time that it takes,” which is what I would tell myself and anyone who wants to write a novel.
In terms of my younger, younger self—who didn’t even imagine that she would ever write a novel—I would want her to know that she had the tools inside her all along. Like Dorothy, you know, standing at the gates of Oz. She had it inside her all along, it was just going to take a little time for it to germinate. When I was younger, I felt I always needed a lot of external validation, before I could really take that risk and start to write. But I think, at the end of the day, I had the tools all along. I’m not going to say that I wish I had known that sooner, because this is just the time that it took me personally, and I feel like it was the right time for me.
But now that I’m raising teenagers, I want them to know that they have it in them. I want my kids to know that already, but I also know that they just have to come to it in their own time and hopefully—God willing—life is long and you can try a lot of things.
My Last Innocent Year
By Daisy Alpert Florin
Henry Holt & Company
Published February 14, 2023
Ariana Turner is a writer and research scientist with a PhD from Northwestern University. She is currently working on her first novel.
Sounds intriguing. I’m interested.