There was a time when there was nowhere you could go without seeing a copy of Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying on a bookshelf. Feminists embraced it for its celebration of a woman’s sexuality. Frankly, I’ve never read it but when I was offered a chance to read Fear of Dying I was intrigued. In a telephone conversation, I even mentioned it to my mother who immediately grunted dismissively. I figured it was because Jong is known for writing about sex, something my mother doesn’t especially enjoy. I proceeded to read the book with some curiosity.
Chalk this one up to yet another beach read. In some ways, this novel serves as a sequel to Jong’s previous bestseller although the protagonist is not Isadora Wing but her best friend Vanessa Wonderman who is fighting her age even as she is surrounded by death and loss. She turns to the “zipless fuck” in spite of her supposedly being happily married. And why wouldn’t she be happy? Yes, her parents are slowly dying but they have lived long lives and age is simply not a state-of-mind. Her husband, who loves her and with whom she still has a sexually active life, loves her without looking away from her flaws. And bonus: He’s wealthy! Her only daughter is expecting a child. It’s all there. Every reason for her to be happy.
Which is why her selfish narcissism is all the more distasteful. At no point did I sympathize with Vanessa, and I felt as though I should because I am old enough to appreciate many of the frustrations that come with aging. The novel is described as searingly funny, but I found it overly hetero-normative and judgmental of sexuality.
How can a book from an author who is praised for her sexual liberation be so sexually regressive? The men who respond to her online anonymous-sex search happen to be interested in “deviant” sexual practices making the men seem like perverts rather than sexually different from the protagonist. Clearly, in the author’s mind, the only acceptable forms of sex are traditional but not necessarily monogamous.
More distasteful to me is how banal Vanessa’s and even Isadora’s sexuality seem to be. The novel is told in the first person and here I quote Vanessa:
Erection—how we all seek it! The hard cock standing up and validating our existence. Men think like this—straight men and gay men both. And women too—at least when hunger drives us. (227)
Wow. Really? I guess the author never noticed that women get erections too! Oh, and I believe there’s a fairly large number of women who absolutely do not seek it so, no, Vanessa/Erica, we do not “all seek it.” In fact, and this will clearly come as a shock to the author, there are some people who have no sexual interest in clit or cock or anything else.
Remember that grunt my mother gave? I’m right there with her. Ugh. Nope. Not recommending this novel. Now that it’s read and reviewed, I shall happily rid myself of it.
Best things about it: It’s short and there are some good quotes sprinkled within.
Oh, and there’s a HUGE spoiler for Collette’s Chéri and Last of Chéri so proceed with caution if you haven’t read them. Better still, don’t bother reading this novel and read Collette instead. Seriously.