Florida was the last of the five National Book Award nominees that I came to read, and while it broke the trend of the books getting worse as I read, I have to say, as I've said of the others, that I'm not quite sure why it received such high honor. But if the five as a whole were weak, Florida at least is one of the two best in that weak group.
Like the other decent nominee, Madeleine is Sleeping, Florida is more a collection of vignettes than a single run of novelistic narrative. Though less surreal and playful than Madeleine, the two also share a highly poetic prose, and both display a strong talent for language, if not story or character.
The vignettes are the first-person narrative of Alice Fivey, who loses first her father when she is quite small, then her mother (to a treatment facility known as the Sans) when she is about ten. She is first shuttled off to her Uncle Billy's and Aunt Frances relatively strict home, then to the rich estate of her grandmother ("Nonna"), aged, speechless, stroke-impaired. We dip in and out of her childhood, adolescence, young adulthood, and adulthood as she moves toward a more independent life and yet remains tied to the family, especially circling around an uneasy relationship with her mother who now lives in California. Her two most intimate relationships are with the family chauffeur/servant Arthur and a high school teacher, Mr. Early.
The prose is at times strikingly beautiful and usually has a spare loveliness to it that carries the reader along. The vignettes are small, the book slight, and while the prose isn't simple, it's a relatively easy and quick read. Style is the book's strong suit.
My biggest problem with the book was a lack of engagement. The structure doesn't allow for much of an intense impact as it glides so quickly from scene to scene, not letting anything linger too much, a problem Schutt sometimes overcomes with strong finishing lines at the end of sections. The character, for me, never truly developed into a real person or a fully detailed one, except a few times in her interactions with Arthur. As her older family members (mother, uncle, aunt) and others important to her life (Arthur, Mr. Early) spiral down into aged frailty and/or death, there is sadness, but it is more general and abstract than particular. I didn't feel moved by or for this narrator or these characters; I felt moved by the general sadness of the human condition. One could have substituted any characters and it would have had the same effect. Since I am also moved by the sad plight of the human condition by phone commercials, I can't give the writer too much credit for making me sad towards the end.
I would have liked a stronger sense of individuality, a more precise and intimate sense of character(s). But the book's structure, length, and voice didn't really allow for it. Since it's such a fast read and the prose is at times nicely poetic, I wouldn't recommend against reading it; it's a nice evening spent. But there is so much out there that is as well-written, or more moving, or more stimulating/thoughtful that I can't give it a strong recommendation either. I would, however, give Schutt another chance with her next book in hope that her language use is better served by her story/characters.