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 that has done the same.
The best books, like the best friends and their best emails, like the most intimate and comforting conversations, make us feel understood. They make us feel like home is home. The Odd Woman and the City can be read as a guidebook for how to exist: how to exist while walking on the streets in the city where you live, how to exist inside a friendship, at a bizarre dinner party, how to exist in a world of strangers close by. These kinds of books, when you find them — and they’re so rare — you must carry around with you all the time for months on end. But you must read them bit by bit, in tiny parts, so you don’t use them up too quickly. They’re still useful on second readings (and the third and fourth), but there’s nothing quite like the exhilaration of reading them for the first time ... It seems so obvious it’s embarrassing to even type it, but it took Vivian Gornick’s account of her encounters with strangers and acquaintances and friends to remind me, to help me realize a person could become a person just by walking around.
...funny and elegiac and truth-dealing ... It’s a book in part about that feeling of futility that can sneak up on anyone late on a certain afternoon. But it’s also about a dozen other things: New York City, friendship, sex, intellection, class, the feminist movement of the 1970s, living alone. It’s a slim book with big echoes ... Ms. Gornick’s inability to make peace with the world — her high-strung air of discontent — is the condiment that spices so much of her work. She is a cheerful destroyer of certainties ... What puts The Odd Woman and the City across, however, is how deeply Ms. Gornick gets into the fat of feeling. She is as good a writer about friendship as we have. She is especially fine on the unraveling of old friendships, which can be more painful than breaks between lovers because less expected ... She has spent a good deal of her life, she writes, daydreaming about 'the tomorrow in which I would write a book of enduring value, meet the companion of my life, become the woman of character I had yet to become.' This lack of certitude is what puts a propeller on this memoir.
Really, then, this is a kind of memoir-anthology: a composite Gornick. The effect of all the hopping between present and past is like that of a psychoanalytic monologue, a mind circling a central question: How did I come to be this way? Slowly, there emerges a self-portrait of the author, a proud woman who lives in a sparsely appointed apartment in Greenwich Village, who gets into arguments on the bus about loud cellphone conversations, who looks forward to joining the throng of people on the street during the long afternoon walk that is her break from writing. At a certain point it becomes clear that this populous book is about being alone. This is strangely devastating. Writing about aloneness is an interestingly difficult task, like writing about air or the color white. Gornick mostly knows better than to confront it head-on; instead, she lets it seep into her descriptions of other phenomena: the intensity of her reading and friendships, her sensitivity to company ... Her memoir gains its tension from the threat of impinging loneliness, its joy from the encounters she forges on her own, nameless, on the street.