I read numerous books every year: many of them excellent, others adequate and far less memorable. What is it about a given work that transports you, to the point where you dread setting it aside for any reason? I discovered such a title recently, and I’m still feeling Wonder and Awe.
Especially because—–it’s historical fiction!!! As I’ve mentioned before in this blog, that particular genre has never been my first choice for leisure reading. Well: color me chastened.
So what is this apparently amazing book, truly one of the best I’ve read in ages? The Aviator’s Wife by Melanie Benjamin.
Our narrator is Anne Morrow Lindbergh, describing her long marriage to Charles Lindbergh—decades laced with some ecstasy and sadly, far more agony. Benjamin gives us a riveting and compassionate “voice” with dialogue and introspection that simply sing.
While Smith College student Anne Morrow has undefined thoughts of becoming a writer, her chance encounters with “Lucky Lindy” after his historic 1927 flight to Paris transform her dreams and her life. After just a few tandem flying trips, Lindbergh proposes marriage, albeit more as a partnership than a romantic bonding. Anne literally becomes his co-pilot and navigator (formal instruction in same beginning on their honeymoon!). Their duo flights eventually take them around the world, and Anne gleans tremendous personal accomplishment from becoming a pilot in her own right, although coming “down to earth” reveals painful contrast.
The 1932 kidnapping/murder of their first-born, Charles Jr., alters Anne’s existence yet again, though her immediate agony is seemingly not shared by her super-analytical, list-making husband. In succeeding years, Anne will long for the shy young hero she fell in love with, only to encounter instead a semi-tyrannical head of household (i.e., when he is actually there, and not on a flying jaunt) who often leaves her to raise their sizable family largely on her own, and to adjust to numerous residence changes necessitated by an adoring press and public who refuse to leave them alone.
Through persistence and with only scattershot support from Charles, Anne eventually becomes a celebrated author. But in 1974, as he lay dying, she learns that Charles has been an adulterer for much of their marriage, fathering seven additional children. She must readjust her entire worldview yet again, while, only after his death, making one final, moving discovery about her husband and their dead son.
This novel is riveting. Benjamin’s “Anne” is a mix of humility, slowly-evolving backbone, devotion and intuitive self-realization. By contrast, Charles Lindbergh is singularly unlikable—demanding, self-centered, anti-Semitic, and supportive of Anne’s special communicative talents only when he needs public evidence of her loyalty.
One marvels how she endured a multi-decade life with such a man, as she wonders herself more than once. Burrowing into Anne’s mind, Benjamin allows us to watch a woman deal wtih deep internal conflict, while entertaining memories of a gentler time in her marriage, striving to find personal fulfillment, and ultimately becoming a person of notable strength and accomplishment.
I truly did not want this book to end.
Beyond all other earthly activities, Anne Morrow Lindbergh perhaps loved flying the most. Thanks to Melanie Benjamin and the masterpiece that is The Aviator’s Wife, we journey with her.