It happens! Not very often, but often enough. A plane crashes! Sometimes in your own “back yard”! I remember that midwinter’s night about nine years ago, bitterly cold and clear, when Colgan Air Flight 3407 crashed in Clarence, NY, not even ten miles from my house, even closer to the Buffalo International Airport. Everyone knew someone affected, such as the cantor at the synagogue up the street, the wife of a professor at UB who was teaching a class I was taking at the Teacher Center on Asian Culture. We were discussing the Great Wall of China and I said that was on my bucket list, “what’s that,” he asked; awkwardly I realized my mistake as I explained the term, knowing it was too late for his wife to make such requests.
Pilot error! I thought about the pilots who didn’t realize how quickly those wings would ice up on a Buffalo winter’s evening or how important that they maintain control and not rely on the autopilot so as to avoid the danger of a stall. I thought of their families, their spouses and parents, their friends, and how they all suffered along with those of the other 47 on board (plus the older gentleman in the home where they crashed) on that fateful night just minutes from landing safely.
So when I picked up The Pilot’s Wife by Anita Shreve, I was reading a scenario I had already mentally examined, yet living it through the eyes of fictional character Kathryn Lyons, whose husband was accused of committing suicide at the expense of the 103 passengers and crew on board the Heathrow to Boston flight. This is a heart wrenching tale, pulling the reader into the roller coaster of emotions which result from such a tragedy. Through a flashback of thoughts we are given the details of what appears to be the perfect marriage, yet there are little hints that something was somehow a little off kilter, just mildly, but in retrospect significant. In this way Kathryn starts to piece together the truth with the support of union rep Robert Hart who helps her navigate past the disruptions of the questioning reporters, the investigators from the Safety Board, and even the FBI, as well as assist her in creating enough semblance of normalcy to provide closure through a memorial service and the upcoming Christmas holidays. Kathryn can’t completely fall apart because she has her fifteen year old daughter Mattie to care for, although her grandmother Julie is there for support, just as she was when Kathryn’s parents tragically died.
Well written, full of angst despite some tender moments, and, while not altogether unexpected, there are a few twists and turns in the story that propels us through to the end. Paying attention to the little details might provide enough clues to answer some of the questions left after reading the open ended conclusion, especially since Shreve doesn’t let the plot drag on, but keeps it going just long enough to get the job done.
I would be remiss in not examining the life of the author, Anita Shreve, who died this past August at the age of 71 from a reoccurrence of breast cancer. Shreve, who grew up in Boston but spent her summers in Maine, believed that the focal point of any story should be the family home -“a house with any kind of age has dozens of stories to tell”. The particular residence in The Pilot’s Wife was an 1890s white-clapboard house with a mansard roof located on the coast of southern Maine reminiscent of the place where the author spent her summer vacations. Her love of this childhood spot extended to the sea, a setting which becomes like an additional character in the narrative. When Shreve overheard a conversation about a plane crash, she thought of her father, who was an airplane pilot, and couldn’t help imagining how she would feel if she were the pilot’s wife. That lead to this novel as well as the 2002 screenplay she wrote for the made for television movie.
Jack kept a lot of secrets from his wife, and ironically Shreve also had her share of secrets. Her husband Osborne, a childhood sweetheart she reconnected with in later years, confessed that she was so quiet about her personal life that even he didn’t know the names of two of her former three husbands. Perhaps the need for intimacy is why the author preferred to write her stories in longhand, feeling that it brought her closer to the subject matter than the use of an electronic device.
Her last book, The Stars Are Fire, which I recently read, takes place in the same relative locale in Maine with a vintage house and the sea also playing a major role in that story’s development. It is sad that there will be no further endeavors by this particular author whose name was thrust on to the public’s radar when The Pilot’s Wife was chosen for the Oprah Book Club in 1999.
A compelling read. Four stars.