I first heard about the international, cultural, and historical phenomenon that is Erica Jong’s 1973 bestseller “Fear of Flying” when Naomi Wolf described it as “the first female bildungsroman to identify in parallel terms a journey of female sexual awakening with a journey of psychological and creative awakening.” If you’re younger than fifty and have some extra time on your hands, the book is worth reading just to understand second-wave feminism a bit better. As a novel removed from its context, however, I give it an “eh, pretty good” – thanks to uneven pacing that undermines the timeless themes and pockets of exceptional writing.
Protagonist Isadora Wing who (like most of us) seeks both excitement and security, struggles to find both with one man – or maybe even a satisfying balance outside the institution of marriage. Wing voices several famous passages regarding marriage, the perils of remaining single in a man’s world, and the impact of aging on women’s worth. The following excerpt epitomizes “Fear of Flying” and the reason for its remarkable popularity in the year the Supreme Court decided Roe v. Wade:
What all the ads and all the whoreoscopes seemed to imply was that if only you were narcissistic enough, if only you took proper care of your smells, your hair, your boobs, your eyelashes, your armpits, your crotch, your stars, your scars, and your choice of Scotch in bars – you would meet a beautiful, powerful, potent, and rich man who would satisfy every longing, fill every hole, make your heart skip a beat (or stand still), make you misty, and fly you to the moon (preferably on gossamer wings), where you would live totally satisfied forever. And the crazy part of it was that even if you were clever, even if you spent your adolescence reading John Donne and Shaw, even if you studied history or zoology or physics and hoped to spend your life pursuing some difficult and challenging career – you still had a mind full of all the soupy longings that every high-school girl was awash in. It didn’t matter, you see, whether you had an IQ of 170 or an IQ of 70, you were brainwashed all the same. Only the surface trappings were different. Only the talk was a little more sophisticated. Underneath it all, you longed to be annihilated by love, to be swept off your feet, to be filled up by a giant prick spouting sperm, soapsuds, silks and satins, and of course, money. Nobody bothered to tell you what marriage was really about. You weren’t even provided, like European girls, with a philosophy of cynicism and practicality. You expected not to desire any other men after marriage. And you expected your husband not to desire any other women. Then the desires came and you were thrown into a panic of self-hatred.
With an engaging opening, fascinating primary plot, and appropriate conclusion, the novel has all the makings of an enjoyable read – especially when descriptions like the following grab hold of the reader:
- “From the first, the marriage was strange. We’d both expected rescue. And there we were both clawing at each other and drowning together.”
- “Tears have such a comforting taste. As if you could weep a whole new womb and crawl into it.”
- “As a seasoned insomniac, I knew sometimes the way to beat sleeplessness was to outwit it: to pretend you didn’t care about sleeping. Then sometimes sleep became piqued, like a rejected lover, and crept up to try to seduce you.”
- “The strangest thing about crying (perhaps this is a carryover from infancy) is that we never can cry wholeheartedly without a listener – or at least a potential listener. We don’t let ourselves cry as desperately as we might. Maybe we’re afraid to sink under the surface of the tears for fear there will be no one to save us. Or maybe tears are a form of communication – like speech – and require a listener.”
- “The bruise on the heart which at first feels incredibly tender to the slightest touch eventually turns all the shades of the rainbow and stops aching. We forget about it. We even forget we have hearts until the next time. And then when it happens again we wonder how we ever could have forgotten.”
If only Jong hadn’t laden the middle section of the book down with descriptions of past relationships, I’d be wild about “Fear of Flying.” As it is, I recommend it on the basis of historical curiosity, cultural understanding, a unique tone, and some extraordinary figurative language.