Fierce Attachments," the somewhat literal, even clinical-sounding title of Vivian Gornick's memoir, is a book that will leave its readers anything but dispassionate. Brimming with life, with what the author describes as "a kind of idiot attention to the look and feel of things," it is a sustained close-up of a mother-daughter relationship--that much examined, deified, and excoriated arrangement of birth in which all women find themselves.
Gornick has written a private reminiscence, with the thinnest patina of structure, yet the vividness of her style and the honesty of her perception are such that they infuse her account with the force of parable. The specific data of her personal history notwithstanding, Gornick's story is a generic, timeless one: the Search for a Self, for a bounded identity. It is a story that should be of interest to both sexes but will undoubtedly engage female readers, for whom matters of selfhood (despite proclamations to the contrary) seem to be especially problematic.
Interestingly enough, coming as it does from a self-defined feminist and leftist (Gornick is the author of, among other volumes, "Essays in Feminism" and "The Romance of American Communism"), "Fierce Attachments" is almost free of ideological agendas. What little the book does contain in the way of homage to the salvaging effect of politics seem like obligatory bows in the direction of distant gods. Instead of the carefully honed phrases and single-minded convictions of rhetoric, Gornick's musings and questions strike complex, often ambiguous tonalities. Instead of coming away with assurances, the reader gets stuck with the same quandary that the author finds herself in: Where do "significant others" (to borrow a hideous but useful phrase)--mothers, siblings, role models, friends--leave off and each of us, in our own skin, begin?
"Fierce Attachments" pivots between long, detail-drenched gazes at the past and quick glimpses of the present. In the present, the writer, now in her late 40s, and her mother, in her late 70s, take walks together around New York City. They are two "urban peasants," delighting in long hikes, trailing up Lexington Avenue and down 8th or 9th Avenue. Although the two women live only a mile apart from each other in Lower Manhattan, Gornick explains that they "visit best" on these walks. En route, they exchange barbed confidences and pungent memories, amorous advances tinged with nostalgia and a joint sense of grievance.
Gornick's mother sounds, in her casually ribald way with words, like a mixture of Ed Koch and Henny Youngman. The daughter, in her defiant yet dependent need to bring her mother to account, is forever flaunting the real world at someone whose equally strong need, beneath her tough language, is to idealize it--a woman who once explained to a teen-age Gornick that a prostitute was "a person without a home." Not only does the adult Gornick assert to her disbelieving mother that "nowadays love has to be earned. Even by mothers and sons," but she is happy to provide graphic enlightenment on the subject of homosexuality: "What do homosexuals do?" her mother asks. "They do everything you do, Ma."
Neither of them succeeds in defeating the other, nor, one senses, do they really want to. For along with their vigilantly maintained antagonism, Gornick and her mother also enjoy a genuine rapport, a sympathetic attunement of vulnerabilities: "We share an appreciation of clothes, my mother and I . . . but we cannot bear to shop, either of us. . . . When we stand as we do now, before a store window, forced to realize that there are women who dress with deliberation, we are aware of mutual disability, and we become what we often are: two women of remarkably similar inhibitions bonded together. . . ."
The real power of their bond lies, of course, in the world of the past. With intensely colored backward glances, Gornick paints in a whole landscape of childhood and adolescence: the cramped Bronx apartment shared by two adults and two children (what, I wonder, became of the writer's brother, "on guard from age 10"?); the rich communal life of a building populated by Jewish immigrants; the ripe-for-the-plucking neighbor, Nettie, who suggested to an impressionable, daydreaming Gornick that among the enraged female compromises--"the bargains . . . struck with life"--on view all around her was also the bargain of sex.