When you think of James Bond, you might picture a tuxedo-clad spy scaling the wall of an expansive estate in India. You might groan at the thought of a naked woman’s silhouette and the name of a production designer resting complacently on her thigh. If you’re like me, you might even cue the bombastic theme music in your head as you leave the gym, pretending like a KGB agent is tailing you and the only way you’ll save the girl is if you lose him by darting quickly up the parking garage stairwell.
But what if when you thought of James Bond, you instead recalled the exploits of a young Canadian woman traveling through the Northeastern United States to find herself, but instead finds a lonely motel straight out of Psycho. Before reading The Spy Who Loved Me, I would have been within my rights calling you a weirdo, but now I’m living in a post-TSWLM world and I’d have to give you your due. Sometimes the idea of James Bond doesn’t necessarily have to include James Bond. At least not for a bit.
Ian Fleming wrote The Spy Who Loved Me in 1962 (the same year as the first Bond film, Dr. No). Don’t mistake it with the 1977 film of the same name with Roger Moore. The novel and the film share nothing in common.
The book marks a significant departure for Fleming who, having written eight previous Bond novels, chose to look at his British spy “through the wrong end of the telescope”. The plot is told in first person by Vivienne Michel who is on a journey through the “Red Indian country of Fenimore Cooper, and then across some of the great battlefields of the American Revolution”.
The first section of the novel designated “Me” details Vivienne’s backstory. Here, Fleming sinks his teeth into writing from a woman’s perspective and, for the most part, succeeds. After detailing the loss of her virginity and an early-career love affair, it becomes clear that Vivienne Michel is Fleming’s most fully realized female character. She’s not the traditional sex object found so often in his stories. She has thoughts and worries, hopes and dreams for the future. She’s a living, breathing woman but, to the novel’s detriment, a perpetual victim.
The middle section of the novel, “Them”, has Vivienne stopping at an impossibly sketchy motel, The Dreamy Pines Motor Court. Finding herself low on money, she agrees to work for the owners for a week or two. She comes to regret the decision when, on a lonely, stormy night two individuals straight out of Straw Dogs make their way to Dreamy Pines. It soon becomes clear that they’re not there for a room.
After getting to know Vivienne in “Me”, we see her thrown into one of the worst situations imaginable, trapped by two evil gangsters intent on the worst. It’s the most tense a Bond novel’s gotten. Fleming knows the disadvantages of having a secret agent as a protagonist. No matter what dire circumstances you throw at Bond, the reader knows he can always think of a way out. Here, Fleming gives the audience an ordinary heroine in her early twenties. Vivienne isn’t just threatened by death but also sexual violence, making her situation that much more perilous.
About 94 pages in, at the top of the third section designated “Him”, we finally get an appearance from the man himself, James Bond. He shows up at the motel, a wanderer with a flat tire, and instantly knows that something is wrong. Fleming doesn’t take the easy route with the ending, having Bond save the day. Even with Bond around, Vivienne must take charge of her own situation and work to overcome those who threatened her. It’s a thrilling end to a tight story and, without revealing too much, it’s a distinct pleasure to read a love scene with Bond from the woman’s point of view.
The Spy Who Loved Me is by far the shortest Bond novel and probably the easiest to read. I managed to breeze through it in a few days. It’s a nice change to see the Bond narrative flipped (I kept thinking of the Buffy episode “The Zeppo” centered entirely on Xander’s side adventure). The simplicity of the story structure manages to make the danger much more threatening than Bond’s other exploits. Moreover, a book actually written in the ‘60’s beats any period piece at showing you what it might have been like to actually live in that decade.
Against all odds, Fleming charmed me with The Spy Who Loved Me and, although misogyny can sometimes creep into the pages, a break from the traditional formula was just what a reader such as myself needed to jump back into Bond’s Bentley.