Farrar, Straus and Giroux (May 19, 2015), Hardcover (ISBN 0374298602 / 9780374298609)
Nonfiction: memoir, 192 pages
A version of this review was previously published in Shelf Awareness for Readers (June 9, 2015). Shelf Awareness provided me with a publisher-furnished galley to facilitate the review, and compensated me for the review they received and posted.
At times The Odd Woman and the City, Vivian Gornick’s collection of reflections on her decades of life as a New Yorker, feels rather impersonal for a book subtitled “A Memoir.” However, memoir is not necessarily synonymous with autobiography, and instead, the essayist and former Village Voice reporter is more interested in impressions, opinions and vividly drawn vignettes of urban life than in assembling facts and dates in chronological order. Her approach is absolutely personal, even when her subject matter is less so.
The Odd Woman and the City is strewn with scenes of everyday New York City—street scenes, subway scenes, coffee-shop scenes—in which Gornick is both participant and observer. Many of these anecdotes have a very particular feel: encounters with friends and contemporaries are shaded with an awareness that the city where they grew up and came of age is now the city where they are getting old. Bits of the ongoing, twenty-year-long conversation she’s had with her friend Leonard are woven through the book, frequently leading into or out of longer discourses on literature, history, or city culture.
In one of those literary discussions, Gornick describes a novel as “all voice, and very little plot.” It’s not meant to be disparaging, and the same summation might be applied to The Odd Woman and the City. A compelling voice can keep a reader engaged even when the narrative wobbles; Gornick doesn’t really attempt to build a narrative here, but she certainly has the voice. Moving easily between the intimate and the grand scale, this is memoir as conversation—an intelligent, rambling, provocative conversation, accompanying a long walk across New York City.
A memoir of self-discovery and the dilemma of connection in our time, The Odd Woman and the City explores the rhythms, chance encounters, and ever-changing friendships of urban life that forge the sensibility of a fiercely independent woman who has lived out her conflicts, not her fantasies, in a city (New York) that has done the same.
Running steadily through the book is Vivian Gornick’s exchange of more than twenty years with Leonard, a gay man who is sophisticated about his own unhappiness, whose friendship has “shed more light on the mysterious nature of ordinary human relations than has any other intimacy” she has known. The exchange between Gornick and Leonard acts as a Greek chorus to the main action of the narrator’s continual engagement on the street with grocers, derelicts, and doormen; people on the bus, cross-dressers on the corner, and acquaintances by the handful. In Leonard she sees herself reflected plain; out on the street she makes sense of what she sees.
Written as a narrative collage that includes meditative pieces on the making of a modern feminist, the role of the flaneur in urban literature, and the evolution of friendship over the past two centuries, The Odd Woman and the City beautifully bookends Gornick’s acclaimed Fierce Attachments, in which we first encountered her rich relationship with the ultimate metropolis.
“Leonard and I are having coffee at a restaurant in midtown.
“’So,’ I begin. ‘How does life feel to you these days?’
“‘Like a chicken bone stuck in my craw,’ he says. ‘I can’t swallow it and I can’t cough it up. Right now I’m trying to just not choke on it.’
“My friend Leonard is a witty, intelligent gay man, sophisticated about his own unhappiness. The sophistication is energizing. Once, a group of us read George Kennan’s memoir and met to discuss the book.
“‘A civilized and poetic man,’ said one.
“‘A cold warrior riddled with nostalgia,’ said another.
“‘Weak passions, strong ambitions, and a continual sense of himself in the world,’ said a third.
“‘This is the man who has humiliated me my entire life,’ said Leonard.
“Leonard’s take on Kennan renewed in me the thrill of revisionist history—the domesticated drama of seeing the world each day anew through the eyes of the aggrieved—and reminded me of why we are friends.”
If you liked this post, check these out: