“The most vital form of connection other than sex,” Gornick writes, “is conversation.” Reading Gornick’s memoir feels like one such conversation: the kind of personal yet philosophical yet funny dialogue that makes you want to stay up all night. The quip about “conversation” is one of the countless casual yet brilliant observations that mark Odd Woman. Gornick is, if nothing else, a keen watcher of human life in all its manifold complexity. Her gifts for observation come at a cost. Gornick was married, but the relationship ended and she’s spent most of her life alone. She’s devoted most of her 80 years to books, friends and writing. It’s been a full life, but an essential sense of aloneness lies at the core of Odd Woman. Perhaps it’s the reason why the book was possible.

Comprised of short 1-5 page anecdotes, Gornick’s concerns can be broken into four tiers: love, work, friendship and the city. They’re all interconnected, of course, and that’s partially why the ostensibly “random” construction of Odd Woman works, coming to reflect the digressive yet intertwined makeup of the mind itself. One section opens with the writer’s memory of riding into Manhattan as a 14 year-old. “I could taste in my mouth world, sheer world. All I had to do was get old enough and New York would be mine.” The next ruminates on the friendship between Coleridge and Wordsworth. There is a connection between these sections. It’s ours to make.

Romantic love proves difficult for Gornick for the same reasons it plagues many creative types who fear solitude as much as they depend on it for work. Gornick wasn’t always this way. As a girl, she assumed “Prince Passion” would show up and give her life its “ultimate shape.” With the rise of second-wave feminism—a movement for which Gornick was an important proponent—and a certain growth in self-awareness and creativity, Prince Passion turned out not to be a no-show so much as a disappointment. A telling moment occurs when Gornick is dating a polite, educated man who pressures her into performing a sex act against her will. “I felt my eyes narrowing and my heart going cold. For the first—but not the last—time, I consciously felt men to be members of a species separate from myself.”

The loss of romantic love is no disaster. In its place, Gornick embraces her work, and with her newly-hardened heart, she manages to find in writing a satisfaction that runs deeper than anything else. “Work, I said to myself, work.” We hold the proof in our hands.

Odd Woman is also a memoir of friendship. “We share a politics of damage,” Gornick writes of her lifelong friend Leonard, a gay man with an acerbic sensibility. The two have met over the course of 20 years to do nothing but talk: “Ours is the most satisfying conversation either of us has, and we can’t bear to give it up for even one week.” They are soul mates not in their mutual belonging to one another but, rather, in their shared lack of belonging with the larger world around them. They attend a conservative dinner party, and when the conversation remains shallow, Gornick sees Leonard turn quiet. On their walk home, he tells her, “I don’t interest them. And the part of me that’s interesting frightens them.” The same could be said for Gornick. Though a straight and well-adjusted woman, she nevertheless harbors ideas and feelings that don’t conform to ordinary society. In Leonard, she finds a fellow solitary traveler.

The essence of the city pulses through Gornick’s veins. One evening as she strolls through Washington Square Park, she notices the way the park has changed over 50 years. It’s more diverse, more scuffed-up, “black, brown, young; swarming with drifters and junkies and lousy guitar players.” Lest you think she’s criticizing the park, she’s not. The changes she witnesses allow her to see herself more clearly. “I have lived out my conflicts not my fantasies, and so has New York.” The city is in her soul. This is urban Romanticism at its finest.

Gornick is best known for her memoirs. In 1987, she published Fierce Attachments, detailing her childhood in the Bronx and her relationship with her mother. She went on to publish essays (Approaching Eye Level, 1996), biographies of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Emma Goldman and reviews. If Joan Didion and Tom Wolfe developed “personal journalism,” Gornick did the same for criticism. She combines the probing nature of a critic with the unique approachability of an essayist. The writing in Odd Woman carries on this inimitable style: opinionated, free-flowing and driven by a voice as incisive as it is sweet.

Like Gornick, I live in New York. Having finished her memoir, I find myself looking for her. I search on buses, trains, parks and sidewalks. I haven’t seen her yet, but I keep looking. Sometimes, I think I may have already seen the odd woman in the city. She is a part of us all.

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