The Spy Who Loved Me, by Ian Fleming: Book Review

The Spy Who Loved Me Book Covers“Love of life is born of the awareness of death, of the dread of it.”

This book is lucky I didn’t throw it across the room in frustration. In fact, the only reason this didn’t become the third book in history to hold that dubious distinction is that my husband was asleep in bed next to me and I didn’t want to wake him up.

Here’s the thing. If you’re going to read the James Bond books by Ian Fleming you have to brace yourself for a certain level of misogyny and racism. It does make me uncomfortable but so far I’ve been able to roll my eyes and tell myself that these books are a kind of adolescent wish fulfillment that reflect the time they were written. That’s gotten me by, although I have frequently questioned whether or not I’m giving them a little too much slack.

At this point in time, Ian Fleming had produced a book a year since 1953. The Spy Who Loved Me was published in 1962, so that’s nine years of churning out 007 adventures. Admittedly, one of those (For Your Eyes Only) was a short story collection, but it’s perhaps easy to see why Ian Fleming would have been eager to change things up a bit. So he presents The Spy Who Loved Me as a manuscript that was sent to him to reflect a personal story about an interaction with 007, which he then presented to his publisher (breaking the fourth wall to pretend to the reader that he merely edits James Bond’s actual adventures instead of creating them outright). As such, this is a Bond adventure told from the perspective of the Bond Girl. This could have been a fascinating turnabout, but in the end it was the novel’s downfall.

The thing is, Fleming is an asshole to women. No way around it. Taking an opportunity to speak in a woman’s voice only exacerbated the problem.

My first issue with The Spy Who Loved Me actually began with the packaging. Here’s how the plot is presented on the inside page of my copy:

Vivienne had known many different kinds of men. There had been a romantic young aristocrat, bursting with youthful passion. There had been a coldly calculating European, who scientifically roused her to exquisite ecstasy. There had been a brutal American, who used her like an animal. There had been a smiling sadist, who got his pleasure from her pain.

But now there was a new lover in her life–and as far as this seductive sexpert was concerned, 007 was definitely #1…

The first section of the book is all about Vivienne’s past–what had brought her up to the place and time she would encounter James Bond. And it immediately becomes apparent that only two of the men listed (the young aristocrat and the coldly calculating European) were lovers of hers. The brutal American and the smiling sadist appear to be the gangsters who burst into the motel she’s watching over and threaten her with rape, violence, and murder. So definitely NOT lovers. Thankfully, they don’t succeed in violating her, but why on earth would they be listed as lovers of hers? Second, I take extreme issue with the characterization of Vivienne as a “seductive sexpert.” She didn’t ask for these men to barge into her life and attempt to rape her. She certainly isn’t trying to seduce them. Just because she happened to be wearing tight pants and a tight shirt does not make her guilty of seduction.

When you get down to it, she didn’t even seduce the two actual lovers on that list either. The “romantic young aristocrat” essentially bullied her into sleeping with him, vaguely promising that giving him her virginity was the only way to get him to stay committed to her when he went off to university. She wasn’t happy about sleeping with him, she was terribly ashamed–especially when it inevitably turned out that he had no intention of doing anything other than dumping her once he arrived at school. It was basically the same with the “coldly calculating European,” who had been her boss for a time. When his fiancé breaks off their engagement, he seduces Vivienne–not the other way around. She feels deeply conflicted and shamed about it. And when she unexpectedly becomes pregnant he immediately fires her, forces her to get an abortion, and leaves her penniless and ashamed. The reason she’s in the motel in the first place is that in the wake of that humiliating experience she has gone on a road trip across North America to be alone for a while–away from men who have done nothing but misuse her. She has literally not seduced a single person, and while the book baldly calls her a “sexpert,” the fact remains that she has only slept with two men and she is ashamed of whatever carnal knowledge she is in possession of. Right away the book is characterizing her as a whore when she is a victim.

“Calm down,” I told myself. “You can’t really fault Ian Fleming for the way his publishers packaged his book. Take that blurb out of the equation and you have a victimized woman in danger of being victimized again. Let’s just see where it goes.” Well naturally, because Fleming is big on adolescent wish fulfillment, Vivienne immediately falls under James Bond’s spell when he randomly shows up. Regardless of the danger surrounding them, she finds herself weak-kneed when he starts running around without a shirt on. The building is literally still on fire when she and James begin having sex. They haven’t even verified that the bad guys have been taken out (foolishly, as it turns out). So any sense of depth or character Fleming had built up with Vivienne is immediately thrown out the window so she can become a sex object.

Then this happens, and this is when I would have thrown the book across the room. Let’s see what Fleming envisions Vivienne thinking about in the postcoital glow. Keep in mind, this is meant to be Vivienne’s thoughts:

All women love semi-rape. They love to be taken. It was his sweet brutality against my bruised body that had made his act of love so piercingly wonderful.

Fuck you, Ian Fleming. Fuck. You. Making matters worse, Vivienne goes on to describe the gratitude she feels for this man who sexes her up so roughly and how she must now live with the danger that he has ruined other men for her. Seriously: fuck you right to hell, Ian Fleming. It’s bad enough for Ian Fleming to have these thoughts. Bad enough that he spread them to the world through his fiction. But putting such terrible words into the mind of a female character and generalizing them as if they would be true for all women is beyond the pale. It’s a truly sick way to try to justify a sick worldview. It’s nothing short of disgusting.

Fleming hinted at this type of thinking in Casino Royale and again in Doctor No, when Honey Rider–who isn’t a character so much as a living breathing sex doll who loves to get naked for no real reason–begs James Bond for what she calls “slave time.” It was disgusting then but it’s appalling now because it’s no longer subtle. You can’t try to explain it away or ignore it anymore. I’m honestly not even sure I can continue reading Fleming’s James Bond books. If I do continue (because I am close to the end now), it will be with a certain degree of bitterness. Like hate-watching a bad movie. But I definitely need a mental health break.

As for the book itself (leaving the rampantly insulting characterization of women aside for a moment), it suffers from the worst of Fleming’s instincts for plotting. He has a tendency to be overly elaborate in order to compensate for either plot holes or a nonsensical structure–as if a painful degree of explanation will distract you from the fact that nothing makes sense. Goldfinger had been the primary example of this at work before, and probably remains the, ahem, gold standard, but it’s just as irritating here. Coupled with the insanely insulting side of The Spy Who Loved Me, we have a new frontrunner for worst Fleming James Bond book ever written.

Grade: F

For more of 007’s adventures check out my Bond page–which has movie recaps and best-ofs. Up next: On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.

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