Book Review: Parachutes & Kisses by Erica Jong (MMm)

Title: Parachutes & Kisses

Author: Erica Jong

Publisher: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin (reprint 2006)

Intended Audience: Women, people excited by Erica Jong

Genre: Fiction

One sentence that summarizes the author's take on babies/parenting: "Life is risk, she thought. Motherhood is risk too." Also, "children are the periscope of the dead."

What I loved: The narrator's willingness to bare all. Her self-indulgence validates mine.

What made me want to cry into my burpee cloth: Instead of searching for her late grandfather's masterpiece painting, at the end of the book Isadora decides that she is his greatest masterpiece.

How many M's?: MMm (2.5/5)

Erica Jong was one of the premier sex symbols of the 1970s, the Linda Lovelace of the literary world. She wrote Fear of Flying, a brutally honest account of her own -- sorry, her semi-fictional doppelgänger Isadora Wing's -- adventures in sex, marriage, love, and the seeming mutual exclusivity of the three. I enjoy Jong's work because it's so damn honest. Like, describing-the-urge-to-suckle-her-dog damn honest. Her writing is almost plotless, conversational in tone, and often repetitive. It is the mind of all the interesting, impulsive, artistic, ADHD women I know. 

Woman (not Erica Jong) suckling dog

So I was delighted to find Parachutes & Kisses at a used book store in Vancouver. What luck! Not only do I providentially come across a third Isadora Wing novel, but it is about new motherhood. I'd read Fear of Flying while I myself was flitting around Europe in a depressed fugue not unlike her heroine's, and here Erica Jong came crawling back, ready to share the vicissitudes of motherhood by my side. 

Parachutes & Kisses chronicles Isadora Wing/Erica Jong's first year out of a divorce from "Josh," a man she deeply loved and is the father of their three year-old child. Josh is several years younger than Isadora, and much is made of her supposed middle-aged status. In 1984 it was unusual to have a child in your late 30s (just ask my mother, she had me at the ripe old age of 38 in 1984) but 20 (okay, almost 30) years later it seems quaint to worry about such a thing. Over the course of just one generation the average age of childbirth has climbed almost four years. 

About two thirds of the way through the novel, Wing meets another charming young man -- younger, even, than her ex-husband -- and commences an affair of epic proportions. There's a great sex scene, there's a hilarious moment where he swallows one of her diamond-stud earrings (" have a life in which brilliant studs did not get nibbled off by brilliant studs."), and there is the classic unearthing of Isadora's insecurities as she throws herself into the abyss of loving someone who can never be her life partner. It's all very fun and interesting but... won't somebody think of the children?

Diamond studs:
$1,199 at Walmart.
That's one expensive, corporate crap, Ms. Jong.

At so many points throughout the book -- which I read while nursing Sweet Baby James -- I paused and thought, but where is her baby? How does she have time for multi-orgasmic sex, working out, fellating her ex-husband, dealing with mucked up finances, shopping for designer dresses, traveling to California, Russia and Venice, and even sitting down to try to write a book? She does it with the help of a series of nannies and occasional visits from the ex. And not without a good dose of mother-guilt. 
"Raising a child and making a living were no easy feats. One always felt divided. One always felt that one's vital organs were being torn apart." (p. 364)
But for the most part, Isadora isn't focused on 'making a living' in this novel. In fact, she finds herself unable to write. She's blocked and -- surprise, surprise -- she needs an exciting sexual relationship with a man to unblock herself. A classic trope. But in all that time Isadora spends discovering herself in the supine position, Isadora's child is suffering from mommy's inability to locate steady, consistent, loving childcare.
"She'd no sooner build an attachment than some catastrophe would intervene... The hot-and-cold-running nannies had been bad enough when Josh was there, but now that he wasn't, poor Amanda was making do as best she could. She held on to her rituals: the bath, the Muppets, the bedtime recital of the day's activities." (p. 163-164)
Pretty Woman:
to find herself, our heroine needs a man

From an outsider's perspective, and even from Isadora's own, it's obvious that her daughter needs more of her mother. This also applies to the book as a whole: its centre shifts from Isadora's commentary on new motherhood in the first half to disjointed escapades with her lover in the second. This plot twist is never really resolved, their relationship left hanging at book's end, their coupling's imminent doom spelled out in the Venetian clouds. 

It's a shame because Isadora is a loving mother and there is true plot-driving frisson in her desire to connect with her daughter. She sees her daughter as an individual and loves her fiercely. I want to be inspired by this bond, not regaled with another episode with the so-called "boy-toy" (as she describes her novel in the book's afterward, written in 2006). I know about romance. I know about sex. That's how I got to have a baby in the first place.

When she does, her comments on motherhood are honest and so apt, even thirty years later. Take for example, 
"When the baby cried, Isadora's breasts leaked. When the baby was brought into the room by the nurse, Isadora roused herself out of a dead sleep and sat up in the waterbed to take the little bundle into her arms. The little rosebud lips latched onto her nipple with a prodigious force -- the primal force of the universe, it seemed. And Isadora would look down on the suckling baby, feeling her womb contract and her eyes fill with tears -- but tears for what, she did not know. Tears for Mandy's future, or her own? Tears for the unknowability of any baby's destiny? Tears for her own changed state? For never again would she go anywhere without thinking of her child; it was almost as if that cut umbilicus, now useless and dried, had ceased to be a physical object and had become a powerful moral one, a matrix in which her whole life was bound -- so that never again would she make any decision just for herself." (p. 153)

Perhaps all this lost opportunity is just a reflection of the times: women educated in the 1970s were soldiering into the workforce in the 1980s. The assumption was that you could do either, but not both, career and motherhood. Maybe, just as the sexual exploits of liberated woman were not seen fit to print before Jong did so, the pain and ecstasy of motherhood was an invisible, untouchable subject. Not so nowadays (cf. um, this blog, and our first book review, Let The Baby Drive).

But every movement has its pioneers and Jong's honesty is such that even her brief forays into the essence of motherhood might still seem shocking now. She writes about the intimate, wordless connection between motherhood and death; about ambivalence toward pregnancy and her "bourgeois ovaries"; about the double-edged sword of having "help" from other people after birth (we need less of it, but we also need more). Who among us doesn't feel a little kinship with the following?

"No longer were Josh and Isadora ever alone. There was a baby nurse. There was a cook. There were all these people supposedly to help, but every one of them was as much a hindrance as a help. The baby nurse ate and ate and ate. She resented Isadora for breast-feeding and she retaliated in the classic baby-nurse manner: "Mrs. Ace," she would say nasally whenever the baby cried, "your milk's not rich enough -- your baby is starving to death." "

Bourgeois ovaries

Jong's work is readable because she terrorizes herself with the same steady hand with which she dissects others. She describes her own shameless infidelities, shameful vulnerabilities, and raw insecurities without stopping to remember that, hey, she's the author and she's in charge of this book. Parachutes & Kisses is like that time you wrote a drunken email to your ex and then decided to cc eighteen million other people, for profit. The Wing/Jong persona is crazy, funny, literary, and very much embodied; in short, I see myself in her. I only hope that I can channel my own version of Jong-craziness into attentive, full-time parenthood.

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