Heliotrope Books (2023)
When Catherine Hiller´s latest novel opens, we meet the titular character--a 42-year-old mother of three children, in the middle of divorcing her husband of nearly twenty years. Cybill refuses to accept that her best years are behind her, and Cybill Unbound chronicles her journey over more than three decades exploring her sexuality, intimate relationships, and getting closer to uncovering what she really needs as what she really wants.
The first chapter is set in 1988, and each subsequent one loosely aligns with a different year. During this delightfully easy-to-read book, readers join Cybill as she attends a tantric workshop with her boyfriend as well as meeting a lover who introduces her to some light BDSM play; we go on the road with her to Burning Man, and see how she creates passion (both in-person and virtually) during the covid-19 pandemic. Even after she meets Quinn, a Norwegian-Irish lover fifteen years her junior who ends up being her boyfriend for most of the book, Cybill continues to flirt, fantasize, and have secret affairs with multiple men over the years. One of the novel´s subplots centers on Cybill´s editing a book "in defense of adultery," and having to formulate her thoughts on having more than one lover simultaneously, and how deception provides a kind of aphrodisiac of its own. During a moment where there are an overwhelming number of fiction and non-fiction texts celebrating ethical non-monogamy and normalizing polyamory, it´s a bold move by Hiller to present characters having erotic adventures without the knowledge or consent of their primary partners, and (for the most part) enjoying it.
Cybill isn´t seeking outside approval, though. Her feelings may be faithful to those she loves, but her heart is still a bit rogue. Instead, her quest is a relentless search for self-acceptance, of finding a lifestyle and relationships that work for her specifically, and which arise from her own instincts, needs, and desires. Some have already compared Cybill Unbound with Erica Jong´s groundbreaking novel from 1973, Fear of Flying.
Certainly, a number of connections between the two novels and their protagonists can be readily recognized. For example, Cybill--like her antecedent, Jong´s heroine Isadora Wing--is Jewish, a writer, and a New Yorker. Both women are intellectual as well as sensual, and each approaches their sexual encounters with humor, romance, and hunger. These characters are down-to-earth, and part of their wide appeal is their familiarity. Further, through what they say as well as what they do in these narratives, Isadora and Cybill both interrogate intimate relationships between men and women. In particular, these novels fervently question the institution of marriage, the assumption of monogamy, what it means to be faithful to another person, and more.
In many aspects, Cybill Unbound can be seen as a sort of literary offspring of Fear of Flying; however, it is also useful to highlight some of the noticeable differences between the two narratives. In Jong´s book, for example, Isadora is (mostly) in Vienna for a conference on psychoanalysis with her husband and searching for that "zipless fuck." Fear of Flying frequently jumps from the present into memories from Isadora´s past, a structure that not only provides us with a glimpse into some of the American feminist movement around the time of the 1960s sexual revolution, but also creates a confessional relationship with the reader. In a way, Isadora is on the couch, undergoing her own thorough self-analysis before our eyes on every page.
By contrast, Hiller keeps Cybill in the present. We learn who she is through what she does in the present-moment of each chapter, and we progress with her through time. In one way, Cybill Unbound picks up where Fear of Flying left off, by following a woman and her desires
through her 50s, 60s, and 70s. I can´t recall the last time I read an erotic novel told from this perspective, and this alone is cause for excitement and interest. With her fictional heroine´s adventures, done with wit and sympathy, Hiller is almost creating a kind of manifesto about how older women can thrive in enjoying the second half of their lives. If Cybill is any sort of indicator, one can stay quite saucy for years to come, if you want to.
Some of the decisions or situations that Cybill finds herself in may be slightly controversial to some readers: she is more adulterous than ethically non-monogamous, and she gets more of a thrill from secrets than communication and enthusiastic consent. However, besides the fact that Cybill Unbound is fiction and not autobiography, I think it´s helpful to remember that Cybill is not asking that her life be prescriptive, or that others approve (or judge negatively) her choices. In short, I doubt she gives a damn what anyone else thinks about her life, her relationships, and/or how she conducts herself in her private affairs. Another boon of getting older: caring less and less about what other people think.
Catherine Hiller´s novel is different from other erotic novels one will read this year, filled with uncommon perspectives on seemingly familiar subjects. I strongly recommend Cybill Unbound.