In Hollywood terms, Vanessa Wonderman is a woman “of a certain age.” Primarily known for her role as an Alexis Carrington-like character on an ’80’s primetime soap, Vanessa has refused to be relegated to playing mothers and grandmothers, effectively slowing her acting career to a halt. But Vanessa, now 60, is grappling with much bigger problems: she is suddenly facing mortality square in the face.
Vanessa is the heroine of Erica Jong’s masterful new novel Fear of Dying, a thoughtful, whip-smart, and often hilarious look at aging, marriage, sex, and death in 21st century America. It offers us something rare in modern literature: a glimpse into the heart and soul of an “older woman” who comes to learn that the best years of her life may not be over at all. In fact, they just might be forthcoming. No, this is no Clarissa Dalloway waxing regretful about the past; this is a savvy, sexy woman who, if she must go into that good night, is going to go happy, fulfilled, and on the hunt for answers to life’s biggest questions.
That search for answers is spurred by some tough realities. Vanessa’s aged parents are struggling with end-stage terminal illnesses (her mother has dementia, her father cancer). Her much-older husband, Ash, is having grave problems with his heart. She is stuck in the middle of perpetually-squabbling sisters. Her daughter Glinda is very, very pregnant. Her beloved dog, Belinda, is becoming more ill with each passing day.
To deal with these stresses, Vanessa turns to her best friend, writer Isadora Wing (yes, that Isadora Wing, heroine of Jong’s classic Fear of Flying). For the record, Isadora is still her sassy, clever, incandescent self, dodging the blows of Father Time and forever writing her way to sanity. She dispenses advice with her trademark candor and wit, buoying Vanessa and helping her weather the storms.
Vanessa is also turning to zipless.com, a hook-up website, where she hopes to find a paramour who will give her a temporary reprieve from all the dying and darkness. Vanessa is a smart cookie; she knows shtupping a stranger is not going to save her. She just desperately wants some assertion of life in the face of overwhelming death.
In Fear of Dying, Jong writes with a beautiful, meditative flow. She takes discussions, impressions, and philosophical musings about life’s eternal mysteries and cloaks them in accessible yet deeply moving language. Much like her poetry, Jong’s fiction invites readers into that discussion of what it means to be vulnerable, to love and be loved, to be human. And she’s also laugh-out-loud funny; one particular Fear of Dying passage about TV commercials for “male enhancement” drugs had me doing a (not-so-pretty) spit-take.
Vanessa, after a couple of comically failed attempts to find a zipless partner, eventually starts looking for salvation and affirmation in the toughest place of all: within herself. She mines the relationships in her life, especially those she shares with her complicated parents; the sisters that forever resent her for being Dad’s favorite; and the daughter she adores but feels she has failed in some significant ways. She looks at her marriage and the warm, funny, endearing man that is her husband. She examines her friendship with Isadora and how their sisterly bond has nourished her for decades. She is strengthened by her bond with dear Belinda, who is facing death as all dogs do: with open-heartedness, courage, and unflagging love.
As Vanessa takes stock of the people and relationships in her orbit, she is invited to a film festival in Goa, India, where she is to be honored for her work in the 1980’s nighttime soap opera Blair’s World. Though America had long forgotten the “hoary old soap,” Indian viewers have only now discovered the show—and they’ve fallen head-over-heels for Vanessa’s performance as the tough-as-nails title character. But India provides far more than a film festival celebration. It is there that Vanessa has a chance to be reborn. Not into the young woman she once was. But into the woman she is.
Vanessa Wonderman may be “of a certain age” in Hollywood’s eyes, but, fortunately, Hollywood is not the real world. In the real world, and in Jong’s deft handling, Vanessa Wonderman is a woman for the ages.