Fierce Attachments stands with another classic literary memoir, John Updike’s Self-Consciousness, and surpasses by dint of its warm humanity Vladimir Nabokov’s chilly Speak, Memory. I’m embarrassed it has taken me so long to read it, especially since I’ve read Vivian Gornick’s short book of memoir theory, The Situation and the Story, many times. I’ve always found the latter rather slippery—seemingly too simple, it suddenly drops into murky depths—but Fierce Attachments’ brilliant use of the memoirist’s dual persona brings it into focus.
All the same, my current reading of Fierce Attachments, originally published in 1987, is shadowed by disaster. I have two classes of freshmen reading it and they hate it. That may be a slight overstatement, but they aren’t enjoying it—it’s not a book for kids. They want events, plot. In a word, story.
What was I thinking? There’s a story here, but one it takes an adult to see: a woman trying to understand her mother, herself, and how her past forged her. Gornick was affected especially by her mother—mercurial, unlettered, brilliant—and by Nettie, an overripe, artistic, emotionally damaged widow next door.
Freshmen can’t relate. How can they, when most don’t yet own their material? Their parents, for instance aren’t yet people, let alone people who can be forged into characters. For juniors and seniors, if they’re writing majors or at least avid readers, Fierce Attachments would be a good risk. And all MFA students, especially those in creative nonfiction, should read it. Not to mention all self-taught adult memoirists. For it’s a wonder of a book, as good as they say.