Book Review: Fierce Attachments by Vivian Gornick

An abridged version appears at

I’m a fierce admirer of Vivian Gornick’s writing. Her prose is shapely and radiant, to use her own words. Yet the labor that must go into that art is completely offstage. I find the meticulously clean space around each and every word on the pages of her books resounds with meaning, all of which the author skillfully, deliberately chooses to leave unsaid but not inaccessible. This modus operandi alone makes her a writer’s writer. Such use of understatement does not a mainstream readership capture.

Fierce Attachments, in its spare 203 pages, is much more than a run-of-the-mill mother-daughter memoir. I have read and loved three other works by Gornick and decided to put off the memoir. I expected that having come from a very large family, I would have nothing to learn from—and perhaps too much to envy about—a daughter’s fierce attachment to her mother. Wrong on both concerns. No, there is nothing to envy about the familial situation or story. And I might have known that Gornick would not dish up an ounce of treacle. Instead of a sentimental portrait, she gives us a taut, complex, layered narrative with plenty of compelling backstory. She gives us the taste of iron in the mouth and shows us how words can make energy evaporate. What a deft weave as she sallies back and forth between the past and walks with Mama along streets of Manhattan.

It’s not necessary to have grown up in the east, as I did (in a big NJ Italian family) but if you did, you might be better attuned to the culture, the humor, at times dark, the Bronx lingua franca and the Yiddish “dialect.” Gornick is admirably restrained with the last, although she no doubt grew up hearing Yiddish a lot in her mostly Jewish tenement—and during her visits to the Catskills, aka Borscht Belt.

Her work is brave and ruthlessly self-revelatory. The careful reader comes away moved and inspired by Gornick’s style and substance. It is not easy to legibly, honestly craft the love-hate relationship many, if not most, of us have with one or the other parent. Early on, after describing some of her mother’s disturbing behaviors, Gornick tells us flat out “How could I not be devoted to her devotion?” This is the relationship you are about to bear witness to in this book.

That one line stirred the depth of my own ambivalent relationship with my father. I hungrily devoured every detail of Gornick’s “sentimental education” by the “mother and the whore” (my shorthand, not Gornick’s) in that Bronx tenement. Nothing short of a tour de force, or coup de grace, is the way in which Gornick signals us right on page 2, that although there were men in her family and early life, they fall away in her memory. They are silhouettes or shadowy figures in this book. Her steely-opinionated mother and the under-loved, over-sexed neighbor claim the forefront of the maturing girl’s mental landscape. The male characters call to mind the artistry of Matisse’s famous cutouts. There is nothing “undeveloped” about Gornick’s writing—to borrow one of her mother’s hot-button words.

This leads me to what I learned from Fierce Attachments. It has much more to do with Gornick the writer than Gornick the daughter. In the following passage, which comes on page 175 near the end of the book, I feel a surge of exaltation. Yes! This narrator triumphs and thrives despite all; how resilient we are, when we find our craft and art. No matter what brutal upbringing we’ve suffered. Despite her young, ill-advised marriage to an artist she could barely communicate with, Gornick begins to find her muse. Notice that her animus, as Jung might call it, comes in the shape of a rectangle:

“In the second year of my marriage the rectangular space made its first appearance inside me. I was writing an essay, a piece of graduate-student criticism that had flowered without warning into thought, radiant shapely thought. The sentences began pushing up in me, struggling to get out, each one moving swiftly to add itself to the one that preceded it. I realized suddenly that an image had taken control of me: I saw its shape and its outline clearly. The sentences were trying to fill in the shape The image was the wholeness of my thought. In that instant I felt myself open wide. My insides cleared out into a rectangle. All clean air and uncluttered space, that began in my forehead and ended in my groin. In the middle of the rectangle only my image, waiting patiently to clarify itself. I experienced a joy then I knew nothing else would ever equal. Not an “I love you’ in the world could touch it. Inside that joy I was safe and erotic, excited and at peace, beyond threat or influence. I understood everything I needed to understand in order that I might act, live, be.”

Yes, this is the author’s soul speaking. It is the only place in the book where I sensed Gornick’s extreme caution in describing that which cannot be described (call it the flow, zone, epiphany, enlightenment). The dreamy girl who swung her legs for hours on end over the tenement apartment’s fire escape, who tried to negotiate the conflicting female authority in her breeding has come to full fruition.

For me, the rest of Gornick’s story became silhouetted against this shared experience of coming up as a writer in a household with mixed messages. This youthful flowering of the author into a writer was lovely to witness. I know that rectangle as home. Although Gornick never spells out that leap for the reader, to me the geometric image she chose (unconsciously perhaps) to contain her burgeoning writer’s soul, so visually ties back to her childhood tenement described in detail early on as a “train,” not a railroad flat. Home, that rectangular container is where her heart is. And Gornick has a lot of heart.

Love is a huge theme and preoccupation of hers. The reader who is weaned on our cultural addiction to Hollywood/TV romance might not easily recognize that. Thus, this passage is a second denouement of the narrator’s striving to self-actualize through love and work:

“Love is a function of the passive feeling life, dependent on an ideal other for satisfactory resolution: the primitive position into which we are born. Work is a function of the active expressive life, and if it comes to nothing, one is still left with the strengthening knowledge of the acting self. Only when access to the imaginative life is denied does one go in for love in a big way.”

Indeed, this is a pat defining of love and work, and I lean toward to feeling it’s simply too binary. But there is one male character in Gornick’s post-divorce love life, Davey, who progresses from interesting to ridiculous to sublime (he cannot leave his airtight world to communicate). He ends up an adherent to Orthodox Judaism and I can only wonder if Gornick has positioned him as the Fool who unwittingly spouts a tad of wisdom. After they’ve split and he has gone off the deep end, during a chance encounter Davey tells her, “The masculine and feminine are one. You will not let them be one . . . let them come together and you will be whole.”

I first came to Gornick via her short but richly loaded text, The Situation and the Story, a guide I regularly use when coaching creative non-fiction (and fiction) writers. I would read anything Vivian Gornick writes. She has so much to offer.