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Book Review: The Aviator’s Wife

The Aviator’s WifeThe-Aviators-Wife

by Melanie Benjamin

Delacorte Press, 2013

Into the oddly popular new sub-genre of historical fiction about Women Who Marry Jerks arrives Melanie Benjamin’s new novel The Aviator’s Wife, about shy, self-effacing ambassador’s daughter Anne Morrow who in 1929 married one of the most famous men in the world, aviator Charles Lindbergh, renowned as the first person to fly solo nonstop across the Atlantic. Anne Morrow Lindbergh achieved a fame through her own writing – her book Gift from the Sea has deeply moved millions of people who’ve never heard of “Lucky Lindy” – but The Aviator’s Wife is firmly centered on the life she led as the wife of a famous man, so famous, we’re told,

that I received tearstained letters from ingenues accusing me of stealing their future husband; so famous that instead of the groom receiving the traditional congratulations, it was I who was thumped on the back; so famous that movie stars begged us to honeymoon at their estates and directors wanted to make feature-length movies about our wedding.

It’s a delicate, almost impossible task, trying to get the solo piccolo of fiction to be heard over the bass thumping of the history in Anne’s story. Even casual readers of that history will perhaps know of Charles Lindbergh’s contemptible prejudices and unsavory sympathies with Nazi Germany, and those with a little more familiarity will know of the revelations of stunning infidelities on his part – the many children with secret mistresses. And then there’s the banner-headline historical intrusion into any orderly fiction: the kidnapping and death of the Lindbergh baby. The massive notoriety that crime brought to the Lindberghs overwhelmed their life, and Benjamin is too smart a writer to resist letting it overwhelm her own narrative, for a while. Her Anne – a memorably convincing character, intriguingly like and unlike the real person – is stunned and haunted by the loss of her son, confessing, “And so you look for him wherever you go. On the subway. In crowds. At playgrounds.” She’s tortured by doubts that defy evidence:

There was always a sliver of my best, most optimistic self that wondered, What if Charles was wrong, that day in the morgue? What if the dental records were wrong? What if my baby is still alive?

And her burden is doubled by her husband’s typically cold, repressed reaction to the kidnapping:

To Charles, the events of ’32 were firmly in the past, never to be spoken of again. That’s how he always referred to the kidnapping: “the events of ’32.” As if it were merely a page in a history book, and I supposed by now it probably was. Under the entry “Lindbergh, Charles.” After the paragraph about his historic flight, there it would be: the events of 1932, which culminated in the death of his son and namesake, Charles Lindbergh Junior, twenty months of age.

But Benjamin does nudge her narrative along in time, always with a fine sense of pacing and a breadth of research that’s carefully muted but nonetheless evident on almost every page. Charles Lindbergh remains aloof from the narrative for most of the book, but Benjamin sees him clearly at every stage of his life and filters that factual preparation through Anne’s constantly-poised writerly sensibilities. When the Lindberghs make their ill-advised goodwill trip to Hitler’s Germany, Anne’s reactions are filtered through the newsreel footage of Charles that she watched back when he was her hero, not her husband:

He seemed so relaxed, happy, even … He had responded to Germany by going back in time, I thought; he’d reacted to the polite yet adoring crowds with a gleam in his eye, a surprised, shyly pleased gleam. The same gleam I had first noticed in the newsreels I’d seen of him, after he landed in Paris. Back when his face was open, boyish; back when he did not know the dark side of fame.

The sadomasochism bubbling just below the surface of all these Women Who Marry Jerks books (The Aviator’s Wife has been compared to the two most prominent earlier examples in historical fiction, Nancy Horan’s Loving Frank, about what a jerk Frank Lloyd Wright was, and Paula McLain’s The Paris Wife, about what a jerk Ernest Hemingway was, although the ur-text here is surely Fifty Shades of Grey) is refreshingly complicated in Benjamin’s book; in addition to being callous and peremptory, her Charles Lindbergh is tragic, walled off from his own honest emotions, often using petulance to hide embarrassment. Our author paints him very close to the life: reptilian yet somehow grand, utterly unsympathetic yet intriguing. Despite Benjamin’s best efforts, we never share the awe with which her Anne sees him – and we’re never tempted to empathize with him, even when he’s (in his own jerk way) encouraging her:

“I despise seeing you like this” he tells her at one point on the eve of America’s entrance into World War Two, “I despise seeing you waste your potential, no better than any other housewife, worrying over casseroles and coupons. What about us, Anne? What about you – your writing? Whatever happened to that?”

Time passes very convincingly in the novel, and the final act of the book is the strongest: the world has largely forgotten the tragedies and treasons and is willing to ascribe to Charles Lindbergh a more or less simple status of living legend. When he and Anne are invited to attend the launch of the Apollo XI in Florida in 1968, there’s a neat moment when the spotlight is briskly stolen from the trio of space explorers:

Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins would soon be flying to the moon. But only one man’s entrance prompted an earthquake of excitement and salutes. Powerful, intelligent men with crew cuts and thick black glasses all jostled, like little boys, to have their photographs taken with him.

And that moment pales beside the book’s one truly knockout scene, in which the old couple stand inconspicuously in the background at the Smithsonian while a tour guide gives a canned narration to a group of schoolchildren who are looking up at Lindbergh’s famous plane, the Spirit of St. Louis. Looking at the plane, Anne’s mind is drawn back:

I gazed at it, and couldn’t help but think of the launch site in Florida, and Mission Control in Houston; of the hundreds of men, the computers, the constant contact between the earth and the spaceship – the final destination, the moon itself, always in sight. Then I thought of Charles, flying alone in a fog most of the time with no clear view out of his side window. And with no one to talk to, no one to monitor his position, his coordinates, his vital signs. He had no one but himself to rely on; no one but himself to blame if something went wrong.

That mention of no one to check his coordinates – Anne’s own responsibility on countless flights with him, and something of her responsibility in their largely unhappy marriage – is quietly heartbreaking, and Benjamin provides many such moments in The Aviator’s Wife. Casual browsers will drawn in by Barbara Bachman’s stunning cover design (justifiably so: it’s one hell of a cover), but Benjamin’s generous talents – she’s a novelist at the top of her game – will keep them reading. And the best irony is one Benjamin might be first in line to appreciate: even if The Aviator’s Wife gets the big audience it deserves, Gift from the Sea will out-sell it in 2013.