Anita Shreve,
The Pilot's Wife
(Little, Brown & Co., 1998)

When The Pilot's Wife wife arrived at my door with an Oprah's Book Club logo on the cover, I was skeptical as I am of the trendy and heavily hyped. It is after all a novel about a major airline crash at a time when catastrophes are sensational news. Timely perhaps, but a good read?

In this case, Oprah made an excellent choice. Within two pages, I was thoroughly absorbed and, when I reluctantly had to put the book down, I practically drooled with anticipation to resume reading.

Anita Shreve unfolds a seemingly simple story of a woman caught in the grief, aftershocks and publicity of her husband's commercial aircraft explosion. From the first chapter when Katherine Lyons is awakened by a 3:24 a.m. knock at her door and a barking dog, Shreve captivates with this rapidly engaging tale -- part character study, part mystery.

The despair depicted by Katherine, her daughter Mattie and her grandmother Julia is intensely real. The wife's physical collapse of first hearing the news is vivid. Fifteen-year-old Mattie's violent, fleeing reaction is so heart-wrenchingly palpable that the urge to comfort the child remains with the reader. Robert Hart, the union representative who arrives first with the news, wavers complexly between comforting the young widow and performing his bureaucratic role of separating her from the press.

While we've seen the news reports and video of stunned families awaiting news after air tragedies, The Pilot's Wife literally takes us through the throngs of reporters outside the gates of the Lyons' home. The press is invasive. The investigation team businesslike and arrogant. The first few stifling days unfold as rumors are reported and characters react to the gruesome allegations.

Flashbacks beginning with Katherine and her husband Jack's first meeting through the morning before he left for the fated trip alternate with the after-crash plot development. After Mattie, devastated by accusatory news reports, questions whether her mother actually knew her father, these glimpses into their marriage and Jack's personality offer clues to the catastrophe. Katherine's doubts begin to surface along with the crash debris.

With a heavy dose of realistic pain and few laughs, The Pilot's Wife is sometimes a difficult, emotionally-draining novel. It's also a difficult book to put down!

[ by Julie Bowerman ]
Rambles: 2 July 1999

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