Trying to Become the Florida Man

You Can Buy Sunshine, Writes Wennersten, But Not Inner Peace

All is not palm trees and piña coladas when a New Jersey couple moves to a Florida retirement community in Jack Wennersten’s “The Florida Story.”

Bob Levine was “the perfect embodiment of a PR man.” The life he and his wife Lucy built in the New Jersey suburbs seemed perfect, too. But then things changed.

The commuter trains to New York were getting more crowded by the day and their community “had become a suburban immigrant ghetto.” At his job, Bob was feeling increasingly like a dinosaur, eclipsed by younger, more tech-savvy professionals. So, when he’s offered a buy-out, he jumps at the chance to fulfill his retirement fantasy of “palm trees and sea breeze bliss.”

In “The Florida Story: A Lifestyle You Deserve, A Place You Belong,” Jack Wennersten follows the fortunes of the Levines as they pursue their dream to retire in Florida. Bob’s neighbor and friend tries to dissuade him. “You know, Bob, Florida is an invented place,” he warns him. “You can’t become a new person or have a new life just by changing geography.” But Bob is adamant. “We are looking to build a new way of life,” he declares. “It’s more than just palm trees and piña coladas.”

At first, the Levines’s move to a gated retirement community is bliss, as Lucy lounges by the pool and Bob joins a senior softball team. But for Lucy, the “active adult life” touted by Isla Vista’s developer soon palls. Even after she discovers a ladies’ bridge club that offers much more than card play, she continues to have “dark occasionally troubling moments” when she wonders if this is all there is. Bob, too, harbors doubts. Was it possible that, “instead of being his life’s answer, Florida was merely the problem that opened a fissure in his supposedly stable life”?

As Wennersten notes in his prologue, “Most retirees who head south seek redemption in the sunshine. But all too often they recycle what they left behind.” “The Florida Story” captures the disillusionment of people who are able to “buy quiet,” trading their suburban existence for life in a more idyllic setting, but are unable to find inner peace. “The angst and problems continue,” one character observes. “People don’t change over time that much.” And sunshine, alas, is not a cure for darkness of the soul.

John R. Wennersten is a Professor Emeritus of American History at the University of Maryland, Eastern Shore, and the author of twelve nonfiction books, including, most recently, “Strange Fruit: Racism and Community Life in the Chesapeake, 1850 to the Present.” “The Florida Story” is his first novel.