Vivian Gornick’s The Odd Woman and the City is a brief, beautifully rendered memoir by one of the premier writers of our time. Odd Woman is about solitude and friendship, and the sustenance, meaningfulness, and connection Gornick has found while walking among strangers in the streets of New York. Day after day she walked, up to six miles at a time, “to clear my head, experience street life, dispel afternoon depression.” For three decades, she kept notes, then threaded them into this, her twelfth book.
There are no chapters in Odd Woman. The book is an unfurling of brief vignettes, conversations, observations, insights, and ruminations on literature and art, places and spaces, feminism and friendship. Readers can pick it up when they have just a few spare moments, or savor the whole thing in one luxurious sitting. The structure of the book mimics the experience Gornick describes: traversing the streets of the lively, cacophonous city, stopping now and then to engage or just observe, or walking dreamily for long stretches, more attuned to the fantasies within than to the life out on the sidewalk.
As a social scientist with a scholarly interest in friendship, I like to learn from rigorous research studies. Some of the best ideas for research, though, come not (just) from theory but also from the personal stories and glistening observations that enliven memoirs such as Gornick’s
The most important friendship in Odd Woman is with Leonard, a gay man with whom Gornick has rendezvoused once a week for decades, to walk and talk. How she describes her relationship with him offers potential insights about all of our closest friendships. For example:
- “It’s the way we feel about ourselves when we are talking that draws us so strongly to each other.”
- “The self-image each of us projects to the other is the one we carry around in our heads: the one that makes us feel coherent.”
- “We walk on together, side by side; silent; mirror-image witnesses, each of us, to the other’s formative experience.”
With Emma, a woman different from Gornick in many ways, yet with whom she sustains an intense friendship, Gornick experiences another blessing bestowed by friendship. “The more we explored the immediate in service to the theoretical — a chance encounter on the bus, a book just begun or just finished, a dinner party gone bad — the larger the world seemed to grow.”
You won’t find Gornick effusing about the safe place friendship provides for the disclosure of our most shameful secrets. She prefers the model of friendship that prevailed long ago. “For centuries,” she writes, “this was the key concept behind any essential definition of friendship: that one’s friend is a virtuous being who speaks to the virtue in oneself.”
Gornick believes that friendship is vital to romantic relationships: without it, even the most passionate sexual connections will never be enough. She believes, too, that meaningful conversation is essential to friendship — and, really, to life. But she is not sentimental about friendship or anything else. She notes that her friendship with Leonard is powered by their shared sense of grievance, and a little of that goes a long way. In addition to describing a long lost friendship that resumes with new intensity, and a fraught friendship that heals itself over time, she also relates the unexpected shattering of that cherished friendship with Emma.
Gornick has been married twice, for just for two and a half years each time. Her memoir has the sensibility of the single person that she has been for nearly all of her life. I had expected it might. In one of her essay collections, The End of the Novel of Love, Gornick decries the smallness of novels that lean too heavily on a character’s belief in the transformative power of romantic love. In Odd Woman, she places herself among the feminists of her time (odd women who, as she puts it in a recent interview, “can’t make our peace with the world as it is“) who raged against the prevailing mandates to marry and have children. She tells the stories of neglected women of letters who stayed single for life. When she describes her mother’s experience of marrying her father — “a cloud of obscurity lifted from her soul” — Gornick is critiquing that mindset, not praising it.
At its core, Odd Woman is about the city that nourishes the author, in all of its gritty and sublime manifestations. Gornick prefers the “crowded, filthy, volatile West Side” to the “calmer, cleaner, more spacious” East Side. Wherever she roams, though, she returns to her one personal truth: “>I was never less alone than alone in the crowded street.”
The Odd Woman and the City: A Memoir
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, May 2015
Hardcover, 192 pages