My sexual awakening came at the hands of John Irving, or his words anyway. Until then, everything I had known about sex had come from a religiously subtexted biology book called Wonderfully Made, which my parents dutifully gave me, and a church sponsored class called "You, Me and God Makes Three." The first taught me the basic biological facts of where babies come from, the second conveyed strategies for safeguarding one's virginity. The most memorable: "Always place your Bible on the car seat between you and a boy; if he tries anything, simply say, 'You'll have to get over Matthew, Mark, Luke and John to get to me.'"
You can imagine my surprise when I stumbled upon a paperback of John Irving's bestseller The Hotel New Hampshire in the living room bookcase. My Southern Baptist parents who had dutifully protected my innocence by prohibiting me from watching "The Bad News Bears", "Grease", and "Three's Company", had never thought to lock up their bookcase the way one would lock up a liquor cabinet. And it would never have occurred to me to read their boring adult books if I hadn't run out of "age appropriate" material, with my weekly library visit still days away.
If you haven't read The Hotel New Hampshire, a coming of age novel about the highly dysfunctional Berry family, you can't truly appreciate how eye-opening this story was to an innocent 12-year-old girl who previously hadn't read anything racier than The Chronicles of Narnia. Suffice it to say, I felt like I had stepped through the wardrobe (or in this case the bookcase) into a titillating, and slightly frightening, brave, new carnal world. Irving manages in a mere 401 pages to address a full spectrum of sex and sexuality: oral sex, seduction, incest, infidelity, orgasm, homosexuality, heterosexuality, desire, prostitution, fetish, loveless sex, obsessive love, love, sex, and obsession. I suddenly felt like I had been reading censored books all along: surely Gatsby and Daisy had steamed up the windows of that yellow roadster -- just not on the page.
Needless to say, I devoured it (pun intended) and searched the bookcase to see what other treasures might lie within. Behind the Fannie Farmer Cookbook, I found Erica Jong's feminist novel of female sexual empowerment, Fear of Flying. Next to a Miss Manners' etiquette book lay (pun intended) Henry Miller's sexually explicit tale of a struggling writer, Tropic of Cancer. And on the bottom shelf, on top of the family Bible, a copy of The Joy of Sex. Illustrated, nonetheless! By the time a school librarian refused to allow me to check out Judy Blume's Forever in 7th grade (a book historically banned for its far tamer sexual content: two teenagers in love who practice safe sex), I was no longer a literary virgin, and my long-standing love of books had taken on an entirely new and salacious dimension.
Over 20 years later, I met John Irving at a private party and bookseller gathering. It was hard not to flirt with him. Afterall, he was my first.