Series: James Bond (Original Series) #10
Publisher: Jonathan Cape
Released: April 16, 1962
Vivienne Michel is in trouble. Trying to escape her tangled past, she has run away to the American backwoods, winding up at the Dreamy Pines Motor Court. A far cry from the privileged world she was born to, the motel is also the destination of two hardened killers—the perverse Sol Horror and the deadly Sluggsy Morant. When a coolly charismatic Englishman turns up, Viv, in terrible danger, is not just hopeful, but fascinated. Because he is James Bond, 007; the man she hopes will save her, the spy she hopes will love her …
This review doesn’t contain spoilers, but if you know absolutely nothing about this book other than it being a James Bond book, and haven’t read any synopsises of it at all (like I hadn’t), reading the book before reading anything at all about it will be an interesting experience. If you want that particular interesting experience, stop reading this now.
Referring to this book as a part of the James Bond series of novels is misleading at best. It’s a phycological thriller which happens to feature James Bond. And four fifths of The Spy Who Loved Me is actually incredibly interesting in a way which I prefer to the regular James Bond novels. Then the remaining fifth came along and ruined it completely.
In this book we don’t follow James Bond, but rather a character named Vivian who ends up in a troublesome situation. The nature of the trouble doesn’t matter, as the plot obviously isn’t the point of this book. Most of the book is the backstory of Vivian, and how men in her life have abused her in different ways. This is the point at which you might be thinking “Hang on… men writing from the perspective of women often gets cringy enough, but Ian Fleming doing it?! Surely, that’s taking it to a new level?” And yes, the usual tropes do appear, including one particular laughable low point of “my mouth was sexy – even when I didn’t want it to be”. However, considering how much this could have ruined my enjoyment of the book, the ways in which it was uncomfortable seemed mostly intentional – and called for in the context of the disturbing story that was being told.
And, just to emphasize this, everything positive I’m about to write is what I was thinking about the book before reading the penultimate chapter. I’ll get back to that chapter later.
The best part of this book, the first two thirds, before anything actually happens in present day, does a fairly good job at painting a dark picture of the abuse the main character gets exposed to. At some points it becomes truly uncomfortable, as abuse is presented in a way which is too sexualized for comfort, but it’s done in a way that stops just short of feeling like it has gone too far, and that could favourably be seen as a device to make the book deliberately painful and uncomfortable. Halfway through the book I felt incredibly odd. If the book kept this up, then this would be an incredible departure from every other Bond book I’ve read, and a successful attempt at writing a very uncomfortable, but effective, short phycological thriller. That’s what I hoped would be the case, and I felt some admiration for Ian Fleming for doing something so brave, so off brand, practically as a piece of concept art. The majority of this book had been spent carefully setting up a relatively established character, a character who had been abused and exploited in different ways all her life… Surely, the book would not go on to exploit this character and her experiences further to score cheap storytelling points?
Once the interesting part of this book ends, the “action” part of the book starts. There really isn’t much to say about that part. It’s bland, and the most interesting thing about it is how it’s simultaneously unpredictable and boring. Then Bond himself eventually pops up, and I still held out hope – maybe Bond will be an incidental, and decent, character in a story that’s ultimately about this woman.
Then the second to last chapter happens, and the book comes crumbling down.
And, depending on how spoiler-sensitive you are, you may want to stop reading now. Given how predictable the ending to this book is, and how I don’t think I can express what I think of this book while at the same time saying nothing at all about what happened, I’ll be making inferences to what happens toward the end of the book.
Reading the second to last chapter was a strange experience, and the extent to which a single chapter could change my feelings about an entire book surprised me. The penultimate chapter is the chapter where Bond “claims his reward” for saving the day (that wording is used), and it transpired that the entirety of the traumatic story about the abuse this lady has experienced was there as a prelude to the lady is ultimately abused by the “good guy” in the end – and how that’s a good, desirable, thing to happen to this woman. This chapter also includes an unredeemable five-word sentence that, when presented in the context of an actual thought by an actual woman, without a sense of irony by a man, is one of the most despicable, gross, dangerous, deluded sentences I can remember reading.
I really feel like there is a story behind how this book ended up the way it did. The second to last chapter could have been eliminated entirely, and the book would have been much better for it. It’s as if someone, after having read the book, said, “This book doesn’t have enough sex and maleness, please add some of that”. And, by the way, “maleness” is also a term used at least twice as an unironic way to describe a height-of-attractiveness quality in a man. The last chapter also has a character essentially warning the main character that men in certain positions tend to take advantage of women, which could have been a straw of redemption if the immediate reaction of the female character hadn’t been paramount to “it was a true honour to be abused by such a good-looking, male, masculine man, full of male maleness and good looks”.
This book has left me utterly confused. There is some remarkable material in here, along with really well done, in that they feel properly harrowing, descriptions of abuse. But the fact that the painful experiences of a woman turn out to be a setup for a delusional male fantasy more than spoils it.
This book is interesting, and short enough to be read out of an interest in reading it. And, for my sake, completionism. But you’ll come away from reading it feeling filthy.