Tag Archives: double life

The Pilot’s Wife by Anita Shreve

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.

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The Little Red Chairs by Edna O’Brien

The devastation of war leaves behind many victims consigned to clean up the mess that was once their life. Homeless, both literally and figuratively, they huddle together as refugees in their new countries trying to come to terms with an altered sense of self, brushing aside those clinging memories which must be left in the past if they are to survive in the future.

The title The Little Red Chairs by Edna O’Brien refers to the 11,541 red chairs placed in the center of the capital of Bosnia in 2012, representing each person who died during the 1992-1995 Siege of Sarajevo, small chairs (643) indicating the life of a child. Such a visualization can’t help but move the reader before a single page is even turned. O’Brien’s intent is to haunt us as the story unfolds.

A charismatic stranger, Dr Vladimir Dragan, enters a small town in Ireland, intriguing the locals as he worms his way into the community, setting up shop as an alternative healer. Using his knowledgable background, he mesmerizes the townspeople, gaining their trust, even taking their children out to the countryside to teach them about the natural habitat. Vlad’s expertise in literature and poetry endears him to the members of the book club, gaining him further acceptance. One lonely woman, Fidelma, in a frigid marriage to an older man, desperately wants a child and convinces Vlad to oblige her desires. He reluctantly agrees and during their brief affair he also introduces her to the romance she craves. Verifying her condition, she is left wondering how to explain her predicament to her husband when her lover, afraid of discovery, disappears. Several weeks pass and he reappears, rumpled and mangy, for a previously arranged poetry outing. On the bus filled with townspeople, he is arrested as a master war criminal to the horror of the entire village, but especially to the pregnant Fidelma. Vlad has been on the run for almost twenty years avoiding an arrest for the atrocities he ordered during the Bosnian War, especially during the Siege of Sarajevo. Responsible for the death of thousands in an attempt at ethnic cleansing to remove all the Muslims in Yugoslavia, this man is hated the world over.

Realizing she is carrying this monster’s child, Fidelma wonders how to rid herself of this affliction, but matters are taken out of her hands when she is kidnapped and brutalized for revenge by Vlad’s bodyguards who are livid that they couldn’t claim the huge reward for their former boss’s capture. Just barely escaping death, Fidelma is rejected by her husband and seeks refuge from the nuns at the nearby convent who help her escape to London where she becomes one of the homeless and disenfranchised.

Now a refugee from her own homeland where she no longer feels welcome she must find a new life which includes meeting and hearing the stories of others who also have heartbreaking tales to confess, a string of seemingly unrelated anecdotes sharing a common bond of crimes against humanity. Fidelma meanders through various jobs drifting from one location to another, finally seeing closure by going to The Hague to attend Vlad’s trial and confront her former lover who is unable to admit any responsibility for his actions. Hearing his blame game, she must accept her own guilt in this matter so she can move forward. In a way, she is another war victim of this man. Eventually Fidelma finds some sort of peace with the help of her “new kin”.

Don’t be fooled by the simplicity of this story which is full of literary references and an underlying message. There are many parallels with the author’s life. Edna O’Brien was a poet from a young age who felt a deep connection to literature and ran off with a writer to spite her parents and escape their disapproval, just as Fidelma left her parents to find a better life with an older, wealthier husband. O’Brien, who focuses on the truth, refusing to sugar coat her findings, has habitually found her books banned in Ireland due to the power and control of a church which prefers to deny the foibles of the average man prone to sin. O’Brien believes literature provides a means of escape and uses literary illusions as a parallel to Fidelma’s hardships, with references to classics such as Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse, The Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, The Aeneid by Virgil, and A Midsummer’s Night Dream by William Shakespeare. Including subtle underlying caveats, such as the name Fidelmas which means faithfulness and Vud (Vlad’s nickname) which means wolf, O’Brien’s true genius is in her vignettes revealing that each person has a tale to tell, no matter how reluctant the storyteller.

Carefully researched to bring an authenticity to her writing, O’Brien even attended the trial at The Hague of Radovan Karadzic, the true villain behind the ethnic cleansing in the Bosnian War who received a sentence of forty years about a year ago.

This seemingly straightforward book leaves the reader with more questions than answers. While I would have preferred a bit more expository transitions between events, The Little Red Chairs is a poignant narrative reminding us of the evil which still exists in our world manifested, but all too often ignored, in the mantra “Never Forget”.

Four stars.

This review also appears on Goodreads.