Thursday, August 1, 2013

Literary Wives: The Aviator's Wife

The August selection for Literary Wives is Melanie Benjamin's The Aviator's Wife.

I read it back in February and loved it (my review), although I found my estimation of Charles Lindbergh unchanged (I don't like him).

As with the previous Literary Wives' selections, the main character here -- our wife in question -- really challenged me.  My thoughts on all that below.

See my fellow Literary Wives' responses: Angela of Persephone Writes, Ariel of One Little Library and Emily of The Bookshelf of Emily J.  (You can see our past discussions by checking out my 'literary wives' tag.)

For our Literary Wives conversation, the questions we ask are:

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”?

It's been a few months since I've read this book, so I'm coming at this questions with a good deal of time between me and text -- it's interesting to see what has remained in my mind.  I will say, the sense that lingers is that Anne had little chance to define for herself what being a wife meant, but very much had the experience of being Lucky Lindy's wife.  (For good and for bad.)  

One of the things that came out for me as I chewed over these questions is an aspect of Charles Lindbergh's personal life that came out after his death. For those unfamiliar with him or this book, consider the next paragraph a spoiler and skip on!

[Spoiler-graph] At the novel's open, Lindbergh is on the search for the perfect wife, a smart woman who could be both his intellectual partner, his aerial companion, and his housekeeper. (Despite his protests otherwise.) Anne bends and twists herself to be that woman, and seems to do so admirably; yet, Charles Lindbergh had three secret families in Europe, fathering seven children in total (in addition to the six children of his own). In the novel, Benjamin only lightly mentions this, since historically, there's no indication Anne knew in her lifetime of the other families. But it says something about Lindbergh's perception of wives and families that he had this consuming desire to have families -- and presumably controlled those families the same way he controlled his own.  For Lindbergh, a 'wife' might simply be the legal spouse -- a designation he chose not to share with Anne.  (I've subsequently read some articles that propose he was a sex addict, so his pursuit of 'families' might have been less about domestic environments and more about, well, sex!)

[Non-spoiler bits from here on.] Much of this book had thematic notes of Curtis Sittenfeld's American Wife, with the young smart woman propelled into an almost celebrity-like status due to her husband.  For Anne, a Smith graduate who never saw herself as charismatic, landing the already-famous Charles Lindbergh was a coup for any woman -- but her.  As a result, she went into her marriage encouraged to be his equal in many ways -- she was taught to fly her own plane, take her own risk, repress her emotions to be in rigid control -- but found herself constrained by her husband's vision of her.  She was given freedom and a kind of prison, and Anne finds both reassuring, I think.

Her experience as a wife, however, was devastating.  Losing her first child in a terrible kidnapping (the 'Crime of the Century'), would be horror enough, but I found the way she had to 'move on' (on her husband's terms, with rigid self control) to be truly horrifying.  For me, the experience of being a spouse at that moment seemed akin to a kind of torture -- really, an abusive relationship -- for, despite the era, anyone would understand why Anne fell apart, if she had.

One of the challenges of reading biographical fiction -- especially for this series -- is that the authors have a historical outline they have to follow, and whether we reader like it or not, if Historical Figure X never divorces their husband, we have to live with it, dissatisfying as it is.  I found Benjamin's articulation of why Anne might have stayed with him to be resonant.  I disliked it, but I didn't want to throw the book against the wall the way I did with American Wife

In my kinder -- and more reasonable -- moments, I can see how this marriage (like many marriages!) offered the possibility of something great tempered by the reality of our human failings.  If Anne were left to decide the spouse she 'wanted', she might have ended up in a marriage that was steady, but boring, where she might not have ever written a word.  Lindbergh, through his encouragement and cruelty, propelled Anne to pursue what she wanted -- both a vocation (as a writer) and a relationship (an affair with a man she genuinely liked).  (I suppose a good marriage shouldn't compel someone to have an affair but, well, I'm glad she had some romantic, emotional sexytimes with someone who really liked her.)

Check out what the other Literary Wives have to say: Angela of Persephone Writes, Ariel of One Little Library and Emily of The Bookshelf of Emily J.

We're still working out our future picks -- what books featuring 'wife' in the title should we consider?

6 comments:

  1. Such a nuanced review! After reading all four of the reviews, I feel as if I have an excellent sense of the novel and its issues. Thanks!

    Oh, and I'd try Ahab's Wife and The Wife if you decide to go on!

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  2. It's been a while since I listened to this but I do agree with you. The only thing is times were different then and divorce was rather taboo.

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  3. Nicely done, Audra, even with a few months in between! I don't think I could pull this off without a reread. I so easily forget. I really appreciated your analysis of Charles. You wrote, "But it says something about Lindbergh's perception of wives and families that he had this consuming desire to have families." Yes, it certainly does! All this time, I just focused on that recurring theme of the book (with the timeline skipping) as Anne's problem or her burden or her betrayal. Yet it was HIS action, and HIS betrayal, and, as you point out, perhaps his addiction. We obviously can't know why or what he was thinking or seeking, but it did seem to be a symptom of his own childhood and longing for family. You'd think he would just be present with the one he had and try to be the kindest father and husband possible, but I guess those cycles are hard to break.

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    1. Ok, I have to ask. Did you at all think it was hypocritical for Anne to be so upset about his affairs and the other children? She had an affair as well. I get that he was a terrible husband, but I thought at that point she was being pretty naive and myopic not to even suspect that he was sleeping with other women.

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  4. Wow, awesome review, Audra!

    "If Anne were left to decide the spouse she 'wanted', she might have ended up in a marriage that was steady, but boring, where she might not have ever written a word. Lindbergh, through his encouragement and cruelty, propelled Anne to pursue what she wanted -- both a vocation (as a writer) and a relationship (an affair with a man she genuinely liked)."

    So very true. Sometimes the people who cause us the most pain also urge us on to our greater victories. What a paradox!

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  5. And for the conversation, this is a comment from Angela of Persephone Writers:

    Help!!! This is the second time trying to post a comment, Audra.....no time or energy for this, as I know you understand!!! :(

    OK, trying to recreate.......not sure if he was so much a sex addict as a sort of maharaja... with an international harem. Seems like this whole cultivation of families was more than just sex. Sex is one thing, but families and RELATIONSHIP is something else entirely and whole other level of betrayal, far deeper than simple sex.....the fact that Anne survived it, in the novel anyway, speaks loads to her character and strength. More thnaan what I'd be able to muster.

    In the journals, she made every effort to ensure that things that might castigate a person's character -- Charles included -- were removed......she was very concerned that her opinion and experience not libel others for eternity. I find this laudable. And also incredibly strong. I know I could not do the same.

    Thanks for a great review. It looks as though we saw similar things. :)

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