Sally Friedman

is a writer in Moorestown

She was one of the icons of my young adulthood. I devoured Erica Jong's Fear of Flying in 1973, standing at the kitchen counter stirring soup or waiting in the kindergarten car-pool line. It was like nothing I'd read before.

Jong was bold and smart and used words that I'd never seen women writers use. One was that famous/infamous four-letter word for sex that guys seemed to bandy about easily, but women - not so much.

Say the word zipless and a whole generation of women will smile knowingly. We all know the word that came next.

So of course I went to see her when Jong, now in her 70s, was one of the announced speakers at last month's Festival of Arts, Books and Culture at the Katz Jewish Community Center in Cherry Hill. Her luncheon event was sold out almost as soon as it was announced.

While that center is only a few miles from my home, and quite familiar, I was so lost in memories of that era in my own life that I almost missed the turn into the mobbed JCC parking lot.

I was remembering how predictable my life was. It included a script that those of us who came of age in the late 1950s had memorized. Two major messages of that script were inviolate:

Find a good, dependable man and marry him.

Remember that nice girls marry as virgins.

We all liked Ike, saw a lot of Doris Day movies, and certainly didn't have ideas the way this Erica Jong did in Fear of Flying.

When Jong's book came out, I was more than 10 years into what remains a first and only marriage. And yes, I had followed the script, right down to heeding my mother's repetition of that famous social proverb that was fed from mothers to daughters: Why buy the cow if you can get the milk free?

How times have changed.

Casual sex was not a midcentury mind-set. So for those of us nurtured on "good girls don't," Jong's message was - well, startling. Isadora Wing, Jong's Fear of Flying protagonist, was unfamiliar and a bit weird to some of us. But was she ever intriguing!

The fact that Jong and her Isadora emerged just as the feminist movement was exploding all around us added to our fascination. We were groomed for wifehood and motherhood, but not sex for its own sake, without emotional involvement or commitment.

Sex with virtual strangers - what is now called "hooking up" - came decades later.

Erica Jong looked out at us on that recent afternoon and recognized us. Most of us were women who will not see 50 again. We were not Isadora Wing. But we remembered her decades later, and were part of the reason Jong's book would go on to sell something like 27 million copies around the world.

This time, Jong, who's very blond, very dynamic, and not a bit modest, was telling us about her newest book, wryly called Fear of Dying.

And this time, the protagonist, still lusty, is an aging actress with an impotent husband seeking - well, that's what we needed to read the book to find out. But you can bet there's some focus on the physical side of women's lives. And that Facebook is involved.

"Life is passion," Jong told her almost totally female audience. And older women should not ever be routinely dismissed as physical has-beens, she reminded.

In her own fourth marriage, one that has lasted for 27 years, Jong told us that she feels herself becoming more generous and understanding and, one surmises, even mellow.

She wanted us to know that her earlier life hadn't been perfect, despite the literary awards that have come her way. She certainly made sure we knew that she'd had a tumultuous relationship with a mother who was hypercritical.

The post-lunch chat was never dull. It certainly took us back to Isadora Wing and her - well, lust for life.

Jong had revisited with us the narrow-ledge world our generation had occupied. She had taken us back to the times when what all seemed so simple and clear also had the potential to be stifling for some.

A woman I know stopped me as we were leaving the JCC. She reminded me that she, too, had bought into the happily-ever-after script until in one day, in about 10 sweeping seconds, her husband told her he was leaving her for someone else.

So banal. Almost a cliché. Except that for her, it wiped out 27 years of her life

"I should have been Isadora Wing," she said. "You're one of the lucky ones. I'm not."

There was definitely plenty to think about on the way home.