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Fierce Attachments by Vivian Gornick

Just a week ago I gave you this book’s beginning and told you I was excited about it. It turned out to be everything I’d hoped.

Fierce Attachments is about Vivian Gornick’s mother and their relationship. It is told in two threads: the narrator’s memory of the events of her childhood in a tenement in the Bronx, and the narrative present, in which she and her mother walk together in Manhattan (where the latter lives) and throughout the city. The second thread features a daughter in her fifties and a mother in her seventies, finally eighty years old. The two threads eventually meet, as the remembered events follow a young Vivian growing up: from child to teenager, to college student, through marriage and divorce, into middle age and the walks in Manhattan. It is a very natural-feeling structure and one that makes great sense. It allows the reader to follow the heart of this book: neither the events of past or present, nor the story of one woman or the other, but rather, the story of their evolving relationship over decades, all its pain and small healings. It is also therefore about memory. The walks, which are also talks, allow Vivian and her mother to remember together, to create these stories.

In last week’s book beginning, I observed that the opening scene–a single paragraph–was given in present tense. All the narrative present events (walking in the city) are also given in present tense; but an event from the past doesn’t take the present tense again until page 91, nearly halfway through this book (at 204 pages an oddly quick read, for one so deep). It does not happen again until the past stories catch up with, merge with the present, when the mother turns eighty in the final pages and the two women find a small space in which to ease their combativeness. I had to flip back through the book to make these observations; I didn’t take notes as I went through, and in fact would have told you that more of the book took the present tense than I’ve found when I checked. I guess that makes the point that the past, rendered with lots of feeling and details, can feel pretty immediate.

There is much to admire here. I loved getting a feeling for Gornick’s inner life, as one lover calls it, her development as a writer, and the sad, conflicting story of going to City College and moving away–figuratively–from her mother, when she starts using complicated sentences and words the older woman does not understand. I appreciated the string of men she allies with, and her efforts to understand them, their places in her life and what they’ve had in common. Whatever her mother may think, Gornick uses beautiful sentences. And there is no arguing with the richness of her material: that tenement upbringing, the colorful women and sensory texture and exciting events. But for me what is most crystalline here is the relationship that is her main focus. The rendering of its difficulties.

And I see I’m writing this review prematurely, that I have not yet grasped what makes that rendering so clear. I think it has something to do with dialogue, and more to do with voice: that Vivian and her mother both get such clear voices, and not only them but many other, lesser characters as well. And perspective, the blending of what Sue William Silverman and Suzanne Paola call the “voice of innocence” and the “voice of experience”: the young Vivian, living in the past as it happened, and the writer Vivian walking with her mother and writing this book, and the way the two brush up against one another and eventually merge. The clear search for meaning, the honest, present wondering on the page: the classic assay.

I have a lot more to learn here; I’ll be back to Fierce Attachments soon, I expect. For now, please discover it for yourself, if you have any interest at all in the love and anguish of parent-child relationships, or admire creative nonfiction.


Rating: 8 corners.

3 Responses

  1. I appreciate the sense in your comments concerning how ‘technique’ may go unnoticed by readers yet have an important effect on how they perceive the story (e.g. the proportion of first tense) – that such nuanced skills need not be overtly apparent; that to appreciate a favorite author we need not be capable of describing the mechanics of what they created.

  2. […] writing must do two things,” contends Vivian Gornick in The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative (2001). “It must be alive on […]

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