Thursday, August 25, 2016
The Aviator's Wife by Melanie Benjamin
Published January 2013 by Random House Publishing
Source: purchased my copy from my local indie bookstore at the Omaha LitFest where Benjamin was speaking
For much of her life, Anne Morrow, the shy daughter of the U.S. ambassador to Mexico, has stood in the shadows of those around her, including her millionaire father and vibrant older sister, who often steals the spotlight. Then Anne, a college senior with hidden literary aspirations, travels to Mexico City to spend Christmas with her family. There she meets Colonel Charles Lindbergh, fresh off his celebrated 1927 solo flight across the Atlantic. Enthralled by Charles’s assurance and fame, Anne is certain the celebrated aviator has scarcely noticed her. But she is wrong.
Charles sees in Anne a kindred spirit, a fellow adventurer, and her world will be changed forever. The two marry in a headline-making wedding. Hounded by adoring crowds and hunted by an insatiable press, Charles shields himself and his new bride from prying eyes, leaving Anne to feel her life falling back into the shadows. In the years that follow, despite her own major achievements—she becomes the first licensed female glider pilot in the United States—Anne is viewed merely as the aviator’s wife. The fairy-tale life she once longed for will bring heartbreak and hardships, ultimately pushing her to reconcile her need for love and her desire for independence, and to embrace, at last, life’s infinite possibilities for change and happiness.
It's a little hard for me to have an opinion of this book as a novel independent of the story of the Lindberghs. Having listened to Benjamin talk about her writing process, and doing some research myself as I read the book, I know that the book is largely based on the facts for the famous couple's lives. That may be what also helps draw readers in - the line between what is fact and what is fiction blurs and that's always a good thing in a work of fiction based on fact, in my opinion.
Charles Lindbergh not does come off well here. Cold, manipulative, single-minded. He was a needy husband who managed to find the perfect girl to be his literal and figurative co-pilot. In a family where much was expected, Anne Morrow was struggling to chart her life course until she met Lindbergh. In Charles, Anne found both the man who would allow her to become something more than just "the little woman" but also the man whose shadow she would always walk in. The first licensed female glider pilot in the United States was also a woman who, even when Charles was almost never home any more, allowed herself to be ruled by her husband, keeping meticulous records of money spent, making home repairs he required, holding her children to the strict schedules he wrote. Life with Charles meant grand adventures but also a life that allowed for almost no privacy for decades.
Benjamin does a wonderful job of allowing Anne to tell her own story, from the shy girl who lived in the shadows of the Morrows to the woman who wrote best-selling books and finally became her own person. Benjamin does not paint her a saint - she was a woman who had affairs and, at least on paper, defended Hitler's regime. The book is largely told in flashbacks, Anne recalling their lives as Charles nears death. The through line is a series of letters outing his affairs that come into Anne's possession. It's a literary device that allows readers to see a part of Charles Anne did not actually discover until after his death. But it was good to see Anne really and truly get angry at that man who demanded so much of her and had, in fact, given her so little.
The Omaha Bookworms read The Aviator's Wife this month and can highly recommend it as a book club selection, not just because of its famous characters. Benjamin has pulled in from their lives themes including the cost of fame, mental illness, homosexuality, parent/child relationships, marriage and infidelity, abuse, and grief.