The Odd Woman

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"HER BEST BOOK SO FAR....[It is] one of the most literate, intelligent and powerful novels I have ever read."
—Eugenia Thornton
The Cleveland Plain Dealer
Professor Jane Clifford is in her early thirties, smart, and attractive. A popular teacher at a midwestern college, she appears to be going somewhere. But Jane knows better. After a lifetime habit of looking to books for the answers to life's mysteries, she seems to be finding only more ...
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Overview

"HER BEST BOOK SO FAR....[It is] one of the most literate, intelligent and powerful novels I have ever read."
—Eugenia Thornton
The Cleveland Plain Dealer
Professor Jane Clifford is in her early thirties, smart, and attractive. A popular teacher at a midwestern college, she appears to be going somewhere. But Jane knows better. After a lifetime habit of looking to books for the answers to life's mysteries, she seems to be finding only more questions.
Then her beloved grandmother suddenly dies, and Jane returns home for the funeral, where she is faced with the little dramas and fictions of both the past she has lived and the past she has only been told about. In the midst of it all, she is considering breaking off a long-term, long-distance affair, but like the family stories she tries to make sense of, she cannot seem to find a reason to claim a life of her own....
"PROVOCATIVE...The Odd Woman is an ambitious and intricately developed novel....One of the most realistic, intelligent and skillful character studies of a contemporary woman to date....Godwin is an extraordinarily good writer....She is a shrewd observer of human sensibilities and shortcomings—particularly those of women—and she explores them in depth with sensitivity, wit and an uncanny eye for the truth."
—Chicago Sun-Times

"EXCITING AND AFFIRMATIVE...It is a privilege to watch the unfolding of her impressive talent."
—Minneapolis Tribune

A middle-aged professor's gothic fantasies encroach on her scholarly ambitions.

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Product Details

Meet the Author

Gail Godwin
Gail Godwin

Gail Godwin is a three-time National Book Award nominee and the bestselling author of many critically acclaimed novels, including A Mother and Two Daughters, Violet Clay, Father Melancholy’s Daughter, Evensong, The Good Husband, and Evenings at Five. She is also the author of The Making of a Writer: Journals, 1961—1963, the first of two volumes, edited by Rob Neufeld. She has received a Guggenheim Fellowship, a National Endowment for the Arts grant for both fiction and libretto writing, and the Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

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Reading Group Guide

1. The Odd Woman begins with insomnia stories. Is this one of those topics that unfailingly generates good stories? Are the reasons for insomnia always compelling?

2. Are there happy alternatives to monogamy? How powerful a force is the need for a romantic partner in people’s lives?

3. Godwin presents an intellectual as a heroine, sharing liter-ary references and opinions. Do you welcome this? What do you make of Kitty saying that a novel based on a woman who teaches college wouldn’t sell? What do you make of Howard Cecil’s challenges to Jane (he’s the student who devalues analysis)?

4. To what extent are good writing and good thinking the accu­rate naming of things? Jane dwells on words; what are examples of her terminology? As you discuss this topic, question the terms you use.

5. Jane wonders “if the concept of ‘self’ was a myth which had died with the nineteenth century . . . Was there . . . such a thing as a basic personality?” If there is no such thing as a basic self, who are we?

6. Do the female characters in The Odd Woman compose a spec­trum? In addition to Jane, Kitty, and Edith, there’s Gerda Mul­vaney, Sonia Marks, Emily, Marsha Pederson, Portia, Frances, the Pinner sisters, Mrs. Bruton, Cleva Dewar, and Eleanor.

7. The title of Gerda’s paper, Feme Sole, is a rough translation of “odd woman.” Where does Gerda fit in the spectrum? What does it mean to be a “witch” in Godwin’s terms?

8. Why does Godwin include the Enema Bandit in her story? Consider the ending of the novel, which involves fear of the Enema Bandit and then the appreciation of overheard music.

9. Gerda is called Jane’s opposite. Is there a doppelgänger in your life who both attracts and repels you? Do you need one?

10. Stories are procrustean, Jane thinks. “If a living human being tried to squeeze himself into a particular story, he might find vital parts of himself lopped off.” How does Godwin respond to this story-writing challenge?

11. In The Odd Woman, clothing becomes significant and symbolic. There’s the shopping episode in chapter 14, and, before that, Jane is agonizing over what to wear to her grandmother’s funeral at the end of chapter 6. In the larger story of women’s shifting identities, is getting dressed one of the ma­jor passages? Is there a story behind every day’s dressing decision? (Look at Gabriel’s clothing when he arrives at the end of chapter 11.) What other story elements might figure in a classic story about women’s roles? Does Godwin employ them?

12. What would be your opinion of Jane if she were a friend of yours? What do you think of her fainting spells? Are they related to her grandmother’s?

13. What do you think of Gabriel? Is he attractive? In what ways is he an angel? Do women need more of a demon-lover or more of an angel-man in their lives? To what extent are human beings angelic, and to what extent is that a self-imposed form of civilization?

14. Jane fears that her great-nephews will remember her assomeone to whom nothing had happened. She also imagines an audience watching her life as if it were theater (see chapter 15). What are others’ opinions of Jane? Are they correct?

15. How does one achieve communion with another person? Arethere rituals? Look at chapter 8 (about Jane and Kitty’s cleaning of Edith’s apartment). Also look at chapter 13 (about Jane’s day with Gabriel). Is long-term communion possible, or do people change too much? (See Gabriel and Jane’s conversation in chap­ter 13.) To what extent have you been able to empathize with someone as Gabriel, as a boy, had with his mother? How does the theme of communion play throughout the entire novel?

16. Does a family or group perpetuate itself through its oft-toldstories and sayings as much as through its genes? Have you ever investigated your family myths as Jane does the story of Cleva?

17. What prevents one from living a life alone, with acquain-tances but no intimate friends? What are your feelings about what Jane, at one point, calls her “best self,” working hard on her graduate thesis while it snows outside?

18. Godwin’s novels frequently mention what people are read­ing. A partial reading list for The Odd Woman is The Cloud of Unknowing; “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell” by William Blake; The Odd Women by George Gissing; Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë; Middlemarch and Daniel Deronda by George Eliot; The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton; Barren Ground by Ellen Glasgow; and Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert. Would it be useful for your reading group to follow this list? What would you add to it? Can you define yourself by the books you read?

19. At the beginning of chapter 14, Jane reviews the fates of five odd women. What would be the five fates of twenty-first-century women?

20. "Melodrama is the naturalism of dream life," Von Vorst tells Jane. What are your and Jane’s opinions about how melodrama relates to life? Do villains turn out to be heroes and heroes, villains? Do we need to make heroes and villains–or does doing so idolize and demonize people? Do you believe that coincidences are the workings of fate–such as Jane’s discovery of Von Vorst while looking for cab companies in the phone book? Do you believe in supernatural appearances– such as the ghost of Von Vorst’s mother reading the Encyclope­dia Brittanica? Do you like these elements in this novel?

21. Why does Gerda get so mad at the end of the novel?

22. The Odd Woman is a week in the life of Jane Clifford. Could any week in anyone’s life be the material for an im­portant story? What would make someone eligible to be the protagonist? Would the protagonist’s thoughts, characters’ dia­logue, and flashbacks have to be included in large measure? What would have to be manipulated for greatest effect?

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