Erica Jong’s new book is titled “Fear of Dying,” because, apparently, the author and her publisher want us to think that like her best-selling 1973 novel “Fear of Flying,” it’s a breakout book about women and sex, and not only that, sex over 60. I bit; I bought it. Research, you know, for The Third Third. A business expense. Regrettably the novel, like the little bit of sex portrayed, is not at all satisfying. In interviews, Jong has said she wanted to write “for women that didn’t yet exist,” (in literature? in life? Says who?) so she conceived Vanessa, “an older woman who is sexual, attractive and wants to reach out for life.” Except that she’s not and she doesn’t. Instead Vanessa, presumably like Jong as there is much that seems autobiographical and nothing that seems original in close to 300 pages, wallows in despair about her parents’ dying and her older husband’s aging, as if, naturally, it’s all about her — and her sex life, the only talisman she seems to think she has to fend off her own mortality. It is a sad and vacuous tale. Sadder perhaps, if the reader were only looking for evidence of a more robust sex life after 60, that the most titillating scene involves Vanessa’s friend Isadora (from “Fear of Flying”) and a dominatrix in Paris several decades ago.
In contrast, sublimely, we have Kent Haruf’s final novel, “Our Souls at Night,” exploring intimacy and love in our later years. It is raw and beautiful in its fierce simplicity, stunning in its clear understanding of complex human relationships, and while at times terribly sad, too, hopeful in the end because of the wise and loving choices Haruf’s protganonist, 70- year-old Addie, makes. There’s depth and substance to this tiny tome; enjoy it.