Thursday, October 15, 2015

"The Odd Woman and the City," by Vivian Gornick

I have read Vivian Gornick over these many years, and I was already positively predisposed toward her writing; the intriguing title sealed the deal. The “odd” part of the title “The Odd Woman and the City” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015) alludes to Gornick’s single status, but also echoes the title of George Gissing’s 1893 novel, “The Odd Women,” about women who are perhaps a little different than tradition asks, and at the same time are “extra,” as there were more women than men in England at the time. Gornick, a feminist journalist, essayist, and memoirist, turned 80 this year, and has (mostly) lived in New York City since her birth there, thus the “city” part of the title. She loves the city, and has always walked through it regularly, sometimes six miles a day. This small book focuses on Gornick’s life in New York, and mostly consists of short episodes and vignettes involving herself, her friends and lovers, as well as the people she closely observes as she walks around, or takes public transportation through, the city. She experiences loneliness, yet absorbs it and moves beyond it. She is exceptionally generous in sharing her thoughts, feelings, and experiences, almost always in the context of life as a writer, friend, lover, and flaneur. A favorite line in this memoir is this: “The most vital form of communication other than sex is conversation,” and she thrives on conversation. She is also exceptionally observant of the city life around her. I have such respect for Gornick and women like her, especially women who were born in the 1930s: intellectuals and writers, yes, and feminists, yes, as well as women who are strong, courageous, and vulnerable, at a time that it was even harder to be strong and courageous than it is now. And coming back to the city of New York: this city has been a great contributor to the ability of women like Gornick to have the intellectual life and (relative) freedom that has allowed them to live rich and full (although not always easy) lives. The memoir is also a reminder of the complexity and richness of life as one ages (if one is fortunate). “The Odd Woman and the City” is a worthy successor to Gornick’s acclaimed 1987 memoir, “Fierce Attachments,” which I also liked very much.

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