We know some avid readers. Evan is one of them. He recently shared his review of Vivian Gornick's Fierce Attachments. Needless to say, we're adding it to our must-read list.
Vivian Gornick’s Fierce Attachments is one of the finest examples of memoir in the genre. In fact, The New York Times selected it as the #1 Best Memoir of the Past 50 Years. Originally published in 1987, the story weaves her childhood in the working-class Bronx with her adult life as a writer in Manhattan. This book examines the complexities of her relationship with her mother.
Often, memoirs are the opportunity for the reader to witness an extraordinary life story. To be an invisible participant in some crazy life experience. This is not one of those stories. Yes, growing up in the Bronx in a Jewish household in the 1940’s and 50’s makes for a wonderful backdrop. And there are many entertaining stories about the neighborhood. Yet instead of telling her story through extraordinary events, the writer focuses her attention on the relationships in her life. As a young girl Gornick is enthralled with learning and education. One of the most beautiful sections of the book is when she enrolls in City College and is suddenly surrounded by people just like her. Children of immigrants who long to make books their life’s work and passion. But nearly all her moments of hope and achievement are snuffed out by the continuous reminder that she belongs at home in a traditional role. She will have none of that.
Gornick’s parents immigrated to New York City from the Ukraine in the 1920’s. Escaping the horrors of the Russian Pogroms her parents fled their country of birth for the relative safety and promise of the United States, bringing with them a fierce attachment to both their Jewish identity as well as their distrust of non-Jews. The “old country” was a place where men and woman all had very clearly defined roles and expectations. Her parents brought these values and restrictions with them. Much of Gornick’s story, and even mission, is about breaking down and destroying these expectations that were constantly getting in the way of her own desires and curiosities.
While the title, Fierce Attachments, serves to describe many things in her life, it is her inextricably linked and complicated relationship with her mother that will be the most significant. Her mother was a complicated and strong woman. Someone who considered herself to be a part of the freedom fighting communist underground and at the same time staunchly tied to the traditional expectations of a housewife. These women both love and at times hate each other. And their relationship is both awe inspiring and painful hard to watch.
I highly recommend this book to anyone who has lived and struggled with the expectations one generation places on another, younger, generation. This is a story of a woman who longs to live her life her own way. I found myself unable to put this book down long after I had finished the actual pages of the book. I’m not one for lists, but the selection of #1 on the New York Times list is well deserved.