Fear of Fifty
By Erica Jong
London: Chatto & Windus, 1994. 390 pp.
Reviewed by Melanie Sjoberg
Pick up a copy of any of Erica Jong's novels and you will discover an intriguing world of sexual pursuits, bizarre characters and events, along with serious challenges to dominant social mores. Jong is renowned for her ability to provoke discussion, but has also managed to encourage a light-hearted perspective.
Fear of Fifty is described as her mid-life memoir. Here we learn the secrets of her family background and some of the experiences that helped to shape her view of the world. It becomes obvious that much of her fiction has been drawn from her own reality.
Unfortunately, that reality is considerably removed from most people's experience. It means that the book becomes a self-indulgent exercise in middle-class reflection. Jong's success has coloured her view of the world and left me feeling that I was reading about the life of someone who has a strong individualist outlook, rather than posing any critique of the limitations of bourgeois society.
She describes the hardships of life for her parents, who were Jewish refugees who ended up building a good life in the USA. She realised that their situation was changing when they began to take family holidays in Miami. Her father had been able to accumulate his wealth through shopkeeping. This leads Jong to claim that the USA is essentially a classless society! She does note that there were distinctions between the Jewish girls in her neighbourhood and those in less well-off areas, but doesn't really draw out the possible explanations.
The chapter "Lesbian in the Attic" confronts the problems Jong faced trying to find suitable help for an ageing, demented aunt. No-one in the family really wants to take total responsibility, but there is limited support available from official arenas. Eventually, she notes with irony that money and Jewish contacts are all that enable you to find a satisfactory home.
During the development of her writing career, Jong was plagued by a fear of falling pregnant. She describes the extraordinary precautions that she took, and the intensity of commitment to her diaphragm. She sees her life choices between motherhood and career as a necessary rejection of her own mother's sacrifice. Her idols in youth were women who had remained childless. She does later have a child, but only after her writing career has been consolidated. Her picturesque descriptions of quality time spent with Molly in Vienna help us to understand that the route was worthwhile.
Jong finishes with a contented scenario. Her writing has provided an acceptable income and lifestyle; her latest husband is fulfilling many of her needs, along with her daughter. She still travels widely and has the memories of her many intimate encounters to sustain her. That will have to suffice now that she thinks she is "too old" or at least not as attractive to the young and flirtatious. Fear of Fifty seems to suggest that we need to become much more cautious and reflective as we gracefully enter the middle years.