Published by St. Martin's Press
Publication date: September 8th 2015
It has been so long since I read Fear of Flying that I can’t claim to remember anything about it, except being left with the feeling ‘wow, that is one gutsy author’, writing about sex and relationships in a way I’d never read before. The author was Erica Jong and 40 years after that novel she is back with Fear of Dying, her new fictional take on sex, relationships, and the more depressing reality: dying. Vanessa is a beautiful actress who owns her sexuality and attitude towards men and relationships. At 60 she is faced with the decline of her parents’ health and that of her husband who is in his 80s. Her response to the encroachment of death is to place an ad on zipless.com, a website for sexual encounters with no consequences. This foray into the easy anonymity of the internet for sex proves to be confusing and not so easy. Jong brings back Fear of Flying’s heroine, Isadora Wing, as Vanessa’s best friend and purveyor of wisdom. A writer whose work was the basis for the site zipless.com now has a different take on sex that she wisely shares with Vanessa:
It’s impossible to generalize about sexuality—even one’s own. The only way to keep it pure is to keep it unspoken. Keep it out of words. Words are not where sexuality lives. Without privacy, there is no ecstasy—which leaves out the Internet, the press.
While the loss of desire and sex in her marriage provides the surface motivation for Vanessa’s actions it is the fragility of life that is the true source of her fears and what causes her frenetic ping-ponging between the determination to launch into an affair and the inability to do so. As her husband recovers from a near fatal aneurysm and subsequent heart attack she and her sisters are dealing with their parents slow deterioration. Mortality is foremost in Vanessa’s mind. Jong’s prose is strongest in Vanessa’s musings about her parents as she visits them, cares for them, and watches them slip into a lingering half-life before death. For anyone over the age of 40 she puts voice to the thoughts that strike us all and does so with elegiac tenderness.
To revisit a seminal piece of work forty years later is no small feat and Jong deserves credit for doing so and for being able to reframe her original novel for modern times. For the most part I found Fear of Dying to be poignant but it was largely the parts that dealt with the slow pain of the dying process. Where Jong stumbles is in Vanessa’s feelings about her marriage and her own desirability. It may have been to mimic the uncertainty of age but her conflicting feelings about her husband as either the ‘love of her life’ or a somewhat mediocre lover and workaholic became confusing and ultimately, lost me. Just as the encounters Vanessa initially professes to want lack any intimacy, so too Fear of Dying makes only a partial connection.