Saturday, April 22, 2017

Melanie Benjamin, THE AVIATOR'S WIFE

I enjoyed this book about Anne Morrow Lindbergh, wife of Charles Lindbergh; but I felt it was uneven in several respects. It is told in the first-person, and for the first thirty pages, it felt to me that the author didn't quite have a handle on Anne; I can understand the mixed feelings and uncertain identity of early adulthood, but Anne's psychology felt incoherent. Fro example, she repeatedly refers to herself as "tongue-tied and shy," uncomfortable with her siblings, the "second" sister in the Morrow family, in the "shadow" behind her older, blonde sister. (I kept thinking of Glinda and Elfaba; Elfaba is, of course, the quieter and smarter one, the one who ends up with the man.) But she's buoyant and chatty with her two siblings on the train all the way down to Mexico: "I can't wait to see Con! ... And Mother, of course. But mainly Con!" At one point, she almost seems to try to excuse the inconsistencies in her attitudes and feelings with "Before I could sort out my tangled thoughts ..." However, by page 100, her voice and her psychology emerges as more consistent. And from that point on, I was swept up into the story.

Some of the other reviewers seemed to dislike the book because Charles Lindbergh was a philanderer, a narcissist, tyrannical, and anti-Semitic. The episodes about his response to Hitler's Germany are chilling; there is almost a too-easy line drawn between his loveless childhood, his hard-nosed parenting style, and his appreciation for the Nazis. Others took issue with Anne's inability to stand up to him, or her own unfaithfulness. But I have no problem with characters who are neither heroes nor outright villains, who are struggling, inconsistent in their behavior, or lying to themselves and others. I feel it's to an author's credit if she is able to make us feel for the protagonist(s)--even if it's frustration or revulsion. I also appreciated the way Benjamin was able to suggest how the popular press, as well as the American desire for masculine heroes and for particular versions of supportive wife/motherhood, participated in constructing both Charles and Anne's public personae.

Having written historical fiction myself, I appreciate all of Benjamin's work to wrap her hands around the vast amount of material and to provide in a way that doesn't involve periodic "info dumps." Her handling of the episodes--the kidnapping, the fights with the press, the travels, the final discoveries--are, overall, well-done. I enjoyed.

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