Literary Wives: The Aviator’s Wife

I’m developing a weird love-hate relationship with historical fiction.  I’m bugged by authors presuming to know the minds of famous historical women.  Because three of the four novels we have read for the Literary Wives series fall into this type of novel, I’ve had a lot of time to think about this genre and my complicated feelings toward it.

The book we are talking about today is The Aviator’s Wife (2013) by Melanie Benjamin.  We are asking the following questions.

1. What does this book say about wives or about the experience of being a wife?

2. In what way does this woman define “wife”—or in what way is she defined by “wife”?

Before I get to the questions we are asking about wives, I want to explore my love-hate relationship with fictional novels about historical women.  I do not like it because the voices of these women tend to fall into the same first-person narrative and assume to portray that person’s innermost thoughts, which of course, we cannot know.  And, of course, the authors write disclaimers for this sort of work, making sure that we know it is a work of fiction, but it bothers me that somebody would presume to know the mind of somebody famous without conducing an interview.

I would prefer a third-person account, but I guess then this type of fiction wouldn’t appeal to the inner emotional lives of the women reading it.  I also get confused by which incidents are real and which are imagined, and I wonder how accurate the timeline is.  I guess what I’m trying to say is that these novels require more of a suspension of my disbelief than usual, and they seem to be somewhat formulaic.

However, I have learned to appreciate them through The Aviator’s Wife (and Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald, as I wrote about on Monday).  As I read The Aviator’s Wife, I kept thinking about how little I had known of the protagonists, Charles and Anne Lindbergh.  I knew that he had flown the first solo flight to Paris and I knew that their baby had been kidnapped.  That was about it.  As I read, I learned more about them, but again, the problem of what was real and what was imagined plagued me.

And then, I got to the end, where Benjamin had written a beautiful author’s note, addressing all of my concerns.  She specifically laid out what was real and what wasn’t.  She acknowledged her fudging of certain timelines, and she talked about how her novel helps us to know more about the Lindberghs besides that “we love them.”  She also wrote, “As a historical novelist, the most gratifying thing I hear is that the reader was inspired, after reading my work of fiction, to research these remarkable people’s lives further.  That is what historical fiction does best, I think; it leaves the reader with a desire to know more” (p. 401).

That is exactly what her work of fiction did for me.  As annoyed as I was at having to suspend my disbelief so heavily, I wanted to know more.  I kept stopping as I read to do Internet searches of certain incidents and for photos of the Lindberghs and their homes.  I kept reading websites and Wikipedia pages about them.  One of them called Charles “a strange bird,” and I realized how accurate the novel was trying to be.  I also searched my local library catalog for Anne’s books, and one of them is sitting on my living room end table right now, waiting for me to read it.  So I learned to appreciate the historical novel experience through Benjamin’s work, for it did inspire me to want to know more and to conduct outside “research” on her characters’ lives.

So the prompting to know more ended up being a good thing and the thing I have come to appreciate about historical fiction.  However, another thing really bugged me about this book, and that is the cover.  There is a beautiful image of a tall woman under the propellers of an airplane.  She’s tall and slim and a knockout.  Yet, in the book, Anne is described (many times) as short (and has having an unflattering nose).  As a short person myself, I wish that the cover art had stayed true to the narrative and the character’s height and looks.  By portraying her as tall, it is reinforcing the idea that only tall women are attractive and glamorous, and we all know that’s not true, right?

the aviator's wife cover

Now, as to the characters’ lives, I learned much about marriage.  I learned that marriage may be a contest of endurance, especially if one is married to Charles Lindbergh.  The novel begins with their meeting and “courtship.”  I hesitate to call it a courtship because it was more like a few awkward meetings due to political circumstances.  I kept expecting it to get more romantic or exciting.  I wanted Anne to at least anticipate being with Charles, but none of that came.  The two were formal and had stunted conversations, and then they were suddenly engaged in an uncomfortable way.  The marriage didn’t get much better, except for a few moments.

The marriage was really about control.  Charles was strange and eccentric, as I discovered on the Internet, and he imposed much of that on Anne.  Some of that was good.  She learned to fly and was the first woman to get her pilot’s license.  I think some of this came from his affection for her, as the greatest compliment he gives her throughout the book is that she’s his “crew.”  This is huge, especially for a man who was known for the first solo flight across the Atlantic.  It was an acknowledgment that he needed her and that she was necessary, not just to his home, but to his career and profession and ultimately his life.  For flying was what he lived for.

But some of this was bad.  It seemed that Charles expected Anne to be him.  Her identity had to be wrapped up in his and she had to accomplish the same things and be interested in those things in order for him to be happy.  I see some narcissism in this, but also control.  Charles was said to have had a fraught childhood, and I see this affecting his character later in life.  He had to be in control in order to feel okay and stable.  I completely understand that.  But this came at the cost of Anne’s own desires and at the cost of their son, Charles Junior.

The novel explores the idea that Charles was perhaps responsible for their oldest son’s kidnapping.  I really don’t know what to think, but it certainly seems to have been a possibility.  He did seem awfully jealous and bent on making the baby “strong” without his mother and on keeping Anne in the air with him instead of on the ground with the baby.  Whatever the truth is surrounding the incident, it was a tragedy.  And although they were famous, their grief wasn’t any different than parents without that fame who have lost a child.  It really is a heartbreaking episode in the book and in the history of their lives.

The incident highlights the worst of being famous.  The whole book keeps their fame and its unwanted consequences as a theme, but the kidnapping shows the worst in people who wanted a piece of their fame.  I can’t imagine being followed and photographed the way they were and having to keep guard dogs in the nursery.  What an awful way to live.  What’s interesting to me is that Charles didn’t necessarily invite such fame.  Many times we hear talk of how celebrities put themselves on a stage or in the movies and pursue a public life, so consequently they must expect some level of the public wanting a part of their private lives.  Yet Lindbergh wasn’t in that same category.  He accomplished something great, and innovated air travel for certain, but from the novel he is a shy man with great aspirations, but not one who necessarily fits the mold of a celebrity who wants attention and notoriety.

I’m not sure what to think of Anne as a wife.  She’s certainly loyal, but at the expense of herself.  She just goes along with so much for so long, so the real growth and redemption in the book happens when she publishes Gift from the Sea and then acts on the sentiments in that book.  She gets her own life, as we realize later that Charles had been doing that himself (having several affairs and other families, with some seven children besides those he had with Anne).  So I felt her strength came in the time she spent alone raising the children and her abilities as a mother, but the first strength she shows for herself is when she moves on.  She gets her own apartment and even takes a lover.  Although I don’t approve of that (I think she should’ve divorced first), I understand it and I felt happy for her finally living for herself rather than for Charles.

I think she had to come to this realization because of her idolization of Charles from the beginning.  He is constantly referred to as a hero, especially her hero at first, and yet he doesn’t do a lot of saving or protecting.  It takes her nearly a lifetime to overcome this first impression she has had of him and kept of him over the years.  Instead, she must push that aside and “save” herself.  His heroism doesn’t mean much, especially in their marriage.

Despite this prominent hero metaphor, the ocean also prevails throughout.  I see it as a play on Anne’s book Gift from the Sea and also a metaphor for marriage, that the tides ebb and flow.  It is a much more realistic image, rather than the hero trope, for any marriage, and especially for theirs.

Silence is also a major theme in the book and the marriage.  Anne sees herself as the loyal wife when she is at his side, smiling and silent.  She often finds herself in his world, a man’s world, and must play the role.  She says, “Silence, I was learning—another thing to add to my syllabus!—was the response with which my husband felt most comfortable” (p. 95).

This certainly plays out in their marriage, and contributes to many of the problems they face as a couple.  They cannot grieve together because Charles won’t talk about the kidnapping and death of their son.  He often does not want to hear Anne’s opinion or struggles, unless he asks.  In the end, she breaks this code of silence and confronts him with the letters he has written to his other lovers and children.  It is a conversation they needed to have, but it did make him uncomfortable, and it made Anne uncomfortable to break her silence and step out of the role of quiet and submissive and accepting wife, even thought they had long been living separate lives. Yet she ultimately goes back to silence by keeping his secrets, despite her willingness to talk to him about them.  “I’ll keep his secrets for him” (p. 395).

The one theme I noticed that connected to my earlier review of American Wife (based loosely on Laura Bush) is that of a life defined by men.  Anne says, “I wondered who they saw when they looked at me.  The ambassador’s daughter?  The aviator’s wife?  Or the lost boy’s mother” (p. 239).  Her life is defined by her relationship with and to men, not other women and not herself.  This was also a part of the narrative with American Wife.

Eventually, Anne discovers that Charles had carried a picture of her and Charles Junior in his flying case, the battered one that made every single journey with him over the years.  It is a touching moment of the book and part of the resolution, but I wonder if it really resolves anything.  Does it make up for all of his silence?  Does it make up for his demands on her?  Does it make up for their distance from each other?  Does it make up for his cruelty?  Does it erase a lifetime of hurt and betrayal?

I’m not convinced that it does.  Actions speak louder than pictures hidden in suitcases.

Here are some of my favorite quotes and ideas from the book:

“I lived in a world of remarkable thinkers and dreamers; people whose greatest achievements usually involved the writing of books, the handshake of diplomacy, the paper chase of academia.  Heroes were figures from history or from literature: knights errant, brave explorers crossing oceans fully aware that there might be dragons at the end of the rainbow.  There were no heroes in these modern times, I had sincerely believed” (p. 17).

“Flying is perfectly safe.  Up there on the currents, like the birds—it’s a holy thing. . . . It’s down here where the danger is, you know—not up there” (p. 29).

“No married woman had a separate identity, not even my own mother, with all her education and energy.  She was the senator’s wife, first and foremost” (p. 134).

“Ready for motherhood; the one journey I must take where my husband could not accompany me” (p. 136).

“Father always said you were the brave one . . . He said that the colonel [Charles] never knew fear, he never understood consequences.  You did, but you went along with him anyway.  That was bravery” (p. 392).

“Charles was of the air, but I am of the earth.  Most of us are” (p. 395).

The following bloggers are also posting about The Aviator’s Wife today.  Please visit their blogs as well. 

Ariel of One Little Library

Audra of Unabridged Chick

Angela of Persephone Writes

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29 thoughts on “Literary Wives: The Aviator’s Wife

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  1. Reading this review was like sitting in a sunny nook and having a nice visit with you!

    When I read this part, ” Does it make up for all of his silence? Does it make up for his demands on her? Does it make up for their distance from each other? Does it make up for his cruelty? Does it erase a lifetime of hurt and betrayal?” – my immediate reply was, ‘No.” A dead, flat, “No.”

    Thanks for another great review!

  2. I like your formulation of the problems inherent in historical fiction! I wonder, too, why we have such a spate of novels called “so-and-so’s wife” or “so-and-so’s daughter” — as if women can only be named or understood in relation to others.

    1. Yeah, those titles certainly get at the problem of defining women. I do think the books try to explore that and even criticize it, but in some ways, I guess we really do define ourselves (men and women) in our roles to others. It might not all be bad.

  3. I didn’t end up reading this one yet. I went looking for it and found that it’s too new (too expensive) to take a chance on. I’ll have to wait until it comes out in paperback & people return it so I can buy it used. I have a much easier time taking literary chances on books under $10! (Plug ad for library or e reader here) 🙂 But then I also live in a city where the used book store (Powell’s) is a Cathedral and an absolute pleasure to spend time in, so I know I’m spoiled.

    I like your review of this book and I appreciate the bit about historical fiction in general. I think it’s admirable that you seek out what parts are true because I think lots of people take the fiction and store it as truth. It’s also good that the author addresses this. I’m disappointed to hear that again we have a wife who gives herself up for her husband for a big part of her life but I’m so pleased that she finally frees herself and becomes a writer in her own right. Your literary co-host mentioned her own work and I think I’d like to check out what Anne Lindbergh wrote herself than read a “wife” book about her. I’m curious if there are “wife” books about women who are self actualized and thrive in marriage. I’ve not read any. I think that’s what I said about the last one too. This time I also wonder if there are any “husband” books, and if men’s identities defined in relation to others repeat the theme apparent among the “wife” books. I would like to read a book called “the famous scientist’s husband.” But as I write that I realize that the reason I want to read it is because I’m the scientist and I’m more interested in telling the tale of me through the support of those who (fictionally) support me! Is that what these wife books are about? Another story of Bush, Hemingway, of Lindbergh? This is not about the wives at all, but about the husbands and as readers we are still fascinated by the lives and stories of these famous men, fascinated enough to read the peripheral view about them. But I also don’t know the background of these women and would never have reached out to their own work if the “wife” books hadn’t illuminated their shadowed place in history and you hadn’t written posts about them.

    Thanks for the thought-provoking post and I’m sorry my response is way too long.

    1. Denise, I love your long comments! And I would love to read a book called “The Scientist’s Husband.” That would be gripping and would likely finally be about a woman, even if through her husband’s eyes. So yes, you have hit on something when you say that the books are really about the husbands, in that they show us the effects they had on their wives and we see them through the lens of a close relationship. Maybe that is why writing these perspective books about famous people is so common.

      I actually just finished reading Anne’s Gift from the Sea. I would highly recommend it. It is short and poignant, and maybe a little dated, but surprisingly her ideas about self actualization are still relevant. I want to read more of her work. And I hear you on waiting for the book to be used and less expensive. That’s totally how I do things too.

  4. I feel the way you do about this type of historical fiction, except that I have not actually read any in which the main character is real. I know it would bother me too much to not know what was real and what was not. Having said that, I *love* historical fiction in which the events are real but the characters are fiction.

    Thanks for a very interesting critique of this book. I read on Ariel Price’s blog that your series will be continuing – I hope so!

    1. Yes, it looks like we will continue! And I like your assessment of loving this type of fiction when the characters are fiction. That would probably make a difference for me. Any recommendations on those types of books?

      1. I just became interested in historical fiction this year (!), but two books I really enjoyed this year are A Constellation of Vital Phenomena (backdrop is the Chechen wars and the story is about the mysterious connection between a doctor and a girl whose father was kidnapped; http://www.amazon.com/Constellation-Vital-Phenomena-Novel/dp/0770436404) and The Gods of HeavenlyPunishment (the connections between a Japanese girl and American pilot during WW2 Japan & US; http://www.amazon.com/Gods-Heavenly-Punishment-Novel/dp/039307157X/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1375412455&sr=1-1&keywords=the+gods+of+heavenly+punishment). Constellation was quite a gripping story…some of the dialogue and behaviors of the characters seemed a bit western or American to me, but I really enjoyed the book overall. Gods of Heavenly Punishment was lovely, an enjoyable read. Not a deep, deep or raw story, but entertaining.

        I’m glad to know you are continuing the series! Will it be the same or a different theme? (I do understand if you are not revealing just yet ;-))

        1. Thanks for the recommendations! I will check them out. Yes, I think the same theme for the series. But now that you mention it, changing the theme up wouldn’t be a bad idea in the future.

  5. I agree with you about the suspension of disbelief required with the 1st person narratives in these novels and the problems this raises…but I am not sure there is any other way around it. It would be difficult to really tell the story of a life outside of the 1st person. I can’t really think of a historical novel in which I have really engaged that was not. Perhaps it is necessary to enter into the mind of the person/figure to write from this POV. It is truly only successful if the writer does his/her homework and really engages the figure they are trying to write from. I have to say that both The Paris Wife and The Aviator’s Wife accomplish this…..

    I like that you mention the theme of control in the marriage — that seemed focal to me — but also tht you explored the theme of fame. I hadn’t the time to go there, but I found this a very sensitive and palpable dilemma in the novel. It made me cringe and I couldn’t help thinking of modern-day episodes with the paparazzi that have occasioned so much damage for poor lost souls in the entertainment industry. The media is certainly NOT a friend to people who really want to live a simple life, in spite of their fame. Anne did, even though Charles seemed to feel his very identity was bound to how much his name appeared in the print copy.

    You and I both saw the actions speaking louder than words theme as prominent — like you, I am not sure the tattered picture in the wallet really mans much in the long run. What does she have? Knowing about this other families, a lifetime of loneliness and never measuring up against the knowledge he carried the picture of the two of them????? I don’t know. So many missed opportunities to act on love and intimacy. He carried their picture. But it didn’t stop him from fathering multitudes of other children and syncing with other families. This is abhorrent to me and nixes the gesture of carrying a photograph. His actions with the other women belie the sentiments the photo in the wallet evokes. i think Anne knows this, which is why she steels herself in the end and buries him away…..there is no communion between them…..

    1. I can see how writing something like this would be hard without using the first person. It just really gets to me. 🙂 I will seriously open a book, start reading, encounter the word “I” right away, and roll my eyes. Another one? I guess they serve their purposes.

      I so agree that the picture doesn’t do it. I do kind of hate that she confronts him and then decides to keep his “secrets.” I guess flaunting them would only embarrass her and make her feel bad and just draw more press, another thing she doesn’t want. It really is a dilemma for her. Throughout, she’s forced to be loyal to protect herself, but by being loyal she is also destroying herself. I think the Nazi episode highlights this dichotomy most poignantly.

  6. It’s so interesting that you say that about first-person historical narratives! I open a book, see “I” and I have a hunch that I’ll like the book immediately! I feel sadly detached now with third-person narratives. But I do understand your reasoning. Usually, I don’t mind an imaginative glimpse into the life of a real person, but I did feel weird about it with American Wife. What does Laura Bush think about that? It feels like you’re speaking for her… shouldn’t we at least wait until the person has died? Or is that worse, because then that person doesn’t have the chance to defend themselves?

    Ok – I wasn’t sure if the book was actually hinting that Charles might have been behind his son’s kidnapping and murder. I guess it was, but I just don’t really see what his motivation could have been! He was already famous enough, and I don’t think he would purposely set himself up to be robbed of that much money. He didn’t seem like the wasteful type.

    I love that you bring up Anne’s idolization of Charles… that got me throughout the entire book. It’s very hard to let go of the picture you’ve created of someone, and I think her ability to detach from him makes her very strong. I love what Anne’s mom said when she was dying: that heroes depend on others staying weak.

    1. Yes, yes, and yes! I do wonder what Laura Bush thinks. I doubt she’s read it, but I would want to wait until somebody died before writing about them, even if fictionalized.

      The narrative hinted that he was responsible for the kidnapping when he kind of confessed to Anne as he was dying. Some of the websites I read said that this has been a theory. He did seem awfully jealous of the baby. What I gathered from this fictional account is that he may have done it to “teach her a lesson” and that he had planned to bring the baby back. But it looked like the baby died on the way down the ladder, since it broke and the baby’s head likely hit the side of the house. I guess investigators reenacted this several times with a sack of flour (I think, or a doll?), and every time the ladder broke and the flour hit the side of the house.

  7. I love your blog. I’m in a ‘ “memoir” book reading phase ‘ at the moment.. The 2 books I have ‘on deck’ to read next are Bread and Wine by Shauna Niequist, and Freefall to Fly by Rebekah Lyons. (I loved Shauna Niequist’s first two books, Cold Tangerines, and Bittersweet). Similarly I also enjoyed The Artist’s Daughter by Alexandra Kuykendall. Now, I’m going to add The Aviators Wife to my list to read! It looks great. Thank you for the great blogsite. http://nestingmom2twins.wordpress.com

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