of ‘odd women’

So, I’m reading again.

It’s been a while since I’ve been able to have the luxury of time and mental energy to dedicate to personal reading. And while much of my interests of late have turned to self-help-y type books, I’m also finding time to read some fiction and biographical books. One such book I picked up last week was The Odd Woman and the City by Vivian Gornick.

I’m not sure where this book was first recommended to me — but I’m so happy I took the time to read it. It’s a memoir of Gornick’s life in NYC, and reads like the perfect introvert’s memoir: a combination of people-watching/observing and navel-gazing. There were so many good parts to the book that I found myself having to stop and bookmark! Here’s some of what I decided to read (and reread):

In college, the girls who were my friends were literary. Every one of us identified with either George Eliot’s Dorothea Brooke, who mistakes a pedant for a man of intellect, or with Henry James’s Isabel Archer, who sees the evil-hearted Osmond as a man of cultivation. Those who identified with Dorothea were impressed by her prideful devotion to ‘standards’; those who didn’t thought her a provincial prig. Those who identified with Isabel admired her for the largeness of her emotional ambition; those who didn’t thought her dangerously naive. Either way, my friends and I saw ourselves as potential variations of one or the other. The seriousness of our concerns lay in our preoccupation with these two fictional women.

The problem, both in Middlemarch and Portrait of a Lady, was that of the protagonist — beautiful, intelligent, sensitive — mistaking the wrong man for the right man. As a problem the situation seemed entirely reasonable to all of us … Among us were young women of grace, talent, and good looks attached, or becoming attached, to men dull in mind or spirit who were bound to drag us down. The prospect of such a fate haunted all of us. We each shuddered to think that we might become such women.

Not me, I determined. If I couldn’t find the right man, I swore boldly, I’d do without.

Later on in the book Gornick talks about meeting a man where the relational arraignment was suddenly reversed, and she became “the interesting, conflicted personage and he the intelligent, responsive wife.”

BOOM! How many times, I wonder, have I found myself in that latter role of being the responsive one in a relationship? (answer: ALL my relationships)  For once, *I* want to be the one who takes the role of the interesting, conflicted personage, and NOT the one who’s carrying all the emotional labor of conversations and care taking and relationship maintaining.

As I read on I found out that, for Gornick, the reversal of roles didn’t last long for her in that relationship. She later writes:

It was then that I understood the fairy tale about the princess and the pea. She wasn’t after the prince, she was after the pea. That moment when she feels the pea beneath the twenty mattresses, that is her moment of definition. It is the very meaning of her journey, why she has traveled so far, what she has come to confirm: the unholy dissatisfaction that will keep life permanently at bay.

… We were in thrall to neurotic longing, all of us — Dorothea and Isabel, my mother and I, the fairy-tale princess. Longing was what attracted us, what compelled our deepest attraction. The essence, indeed, of a Chekhovian life.Think of all those Natashas sighing through three long acts for what is not, and can never be. While one (wrong) man after another listens sympathetically to the recital of a dilemma for which there is no solution.

Maybe that’s the gist of why I’m more happy being on my own than in a relationship. This “neurotic longing” of mine for someone who understands me and can meet me where I’m at — to be honest, I don’t think this person exists.

And by being honest enough to admit that, and starting from that point, maybe that’s the healthiest way for me to move forward and grow up and embrace who I’m meant to be.

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