I chose this book for the penultimate month of my 2021 reading challenge, the theme of which was an erotic novel. It is a genre that has a lot of trash, for sure, and most serious readers probably don’t delve into it that much, not for their reading pleasure anyway! But it is a legitimate literary genre and some undoubtedly heavyweight books and authors would be included on any list: Lady Chatterley’s Lover, of course, probably comes to mind first, but then there are also The Lover by Marguerite Duras, Fanny Hill by John Cleland, The Story of O by Pauline Reage, and Delta of Venus by Anais Nin. Some of these I’ve read, others not.
For me ‘erotic fiction’ is more than just ‘a book with lots of sex’; from more recent times I’d say, for example that Fifty Shades of Grey is an erotic novel (probably, since I haven’t read that either!) whereas others have fairly graphic sex in them, but it’s just part of the characters’ lives rather than being the main subject of the novel. Books I’ve reviewed here which I would put in this category include Sally Rooney’s Normal People and Beautiful World Where Are You?, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Call Me By Your Name, and Luster, to name but a few. Some of these are about sexual awakening, and there are others where sex involves a degree of abuse or exploitation. All of the above books appeared in various lists I consulted when I was considering which title to read, but I think there is nuance that is missing: many of these are good books where the sex scenes are well-written and won’t make you cringe, while in others the whole purpose of the story is an exploration of sex and sexuality, meant to in some way stimulate the reader’s own feelings on the subject – the depths and darknesses, fantasy, the timelessness of it, the human condition, the reproductive drive and animal pleasure.
So, that’s my mini-essay on what constitutes an erotic novel! The question is does Fear of Flying fall into that category? For me, no it doesn’t, though many compilers of lists of erotic fiction disagree with me (I wonder how many of them have read the books they are recommending!) What’s the book about? Well, the narrator and main character is Isadora Wing, a Jewish New Yorker, writer and daughter of a bohemian mother who had ambitions to be become an artist but ended up having children instead. This is the central tension in the novel: can a woman be an artist while also being a mother (for me this is the greater question, not the sexual freedom). Remember it was written in the early 1970s when the act of sex was still, in the minds of many, inextricably linked to reproduction rather than pleasure (at least for women), and for many more, confined to marriage. So, it was probably more erotic in its time than it feels today.
The novel opens with Isadora and her psychiatrist husband Bennett on a plane to Vienna (along with many other psychoanalysts of various types) where she will accompany him at a conference (it is no accident that the city is the birthplace of Sigmund Freud). Whilst there she meets English academic Adrian to whom she is deeply sexually attracted. Adrian has a partner and children in London but seems to have a fairly open relationship (though it becomes clear later that he is more committed to the mother of his children than Isadora originally believes). Adrian and Isadora have a passionate affair; the sex scenes are graphic, but perhaps more shocking to a 1970s reader would have been how much Isadora wants and enjoys the sex. And so the expression “the zipless fuck”, for which this book is so well-known, is coined. The problem is that Isadora also loves her husband and he has many qualities Adrian does not: he brings her calm and stability and we learn later on that Bennett came to her rescue when she was in a very difficult place, her first husband, a brilliant musician, having been committed to an asylum. Isadora leaves Bennett for a time and sets out on an adventure touring around Europe with Adrian living out a carefree life of sex and fun.
I have to admit that I found this book quite boring at times! As with many books that have a lot of sex in them, you become a bit immune to it after a while. This book did not fit my definition of exploring sex and sexuality. Rather, it struck me as a fictionalisation of the same sorts of issues raised by Nancy Friday in My Mother My Self. It seems to me to be more about feminism and about breaking free of a patriarchy which says that women are only entitled to a limited experience of sex, a view that no longer holds in developed societies. *(Largely anyway. In secular ones. With some notable exceptions.) It is also a book about the struggle of an artistic personality to reconcile her creativity with her femininity and what this means for her reproductive status. Again, an issue that I think most developed societies have moved on from (the same caveats * as above apply).
This book was more interesting and meaningful to me as a student of feminist writing than as a reader of erotic fiction although it probably does deserve its place in the erotic pantheon too. I have just started reading Pleasure Activism by adrienne maree brown, following a recommendation. This book explores sexual pleasure from a much broader perspective (brown identifies as a pan-sexual woman of colour) and although it is a work of non-fiction it will be interesting to explore how or if the debate has shifted. A topic I will return to!
So, as for Fear of Flying, would I recommend? Well, yes, if you’re interested in the topic, but not necessarily for “pleasure”!
If you have read this book, I would be interested in your views.