Sunday, October 27, 2013

Literary Wives #4: The Aviator's Wife by Melanie Benjamin

Have you ever loved a book so much, and related so well to the main character that it was difficult to distill a decent-sized review of your impressions? That is exactly what has happened to me with The Aviator’s Wife by Melanie Benjamin! This was as much as I could condense my thoughts…and I’ve still omitted what I consider to be important items! YIKES! 

Please check out the other bloggers' reviews:
Ariel of One Little Library
                                        Cecilia of Only You

In my opinion, Charles Lindbergh left a “flawed” legacy, at best—yes, he was a brilliant, determined, and dedicated pilot in his time, completing heroic tasks, but he was a despicable human being in his personal life… Anne says to her mother a few days prior to her death, “You’re my hero.” Her mother replies, “You need to…stop looking for heroes, Anne. Only the weak need…heroes…and heroes need…those around them to remain weak. You’re…not weak.” So true…  

I felt sorry for Anne Morrow Lindbergh throughout her childhood and while raising her own children. I could rarely shake that feeling as I read this book. She was the “reliable,” dependable child of the family, not the “golden” daughter nor the footloose carefree daughter… Although her family was monied and privileged, she was prevented from following her own desires regarding college, forced to attend Smith rather than Vassar, her first choice! Quite obviously, Charles and his mother were invited to join the Morrows for Christmas as a way for their oldest daughter (Anne’s older sister) and Charles to meet…and hopefully…marry! There was no thought that Charles might be at all interested in Anne, who was upset with this intrusion upon her family’s Christmas celebration, a ritual that represented “home” to Anne.  

As Anne states, “…duty I understood all too well. If a history of our family was to be written, it could be summed up with that one word. Duty. Duty to others less fortunate, less happy, less educated, less. Although most of the time I thought there really couldn’t be anyone in this world less than me.” I consider Anne proof that regardless of money, children can still feel very marginalized emotionally and have little to no self-esteem. At least it seemed this was how she felt around her own family. I could understand her relationship with her mother—being unable to openly share with her—so many opportunities missed by a parent, never to be repeated, though they did become somewhat closer throughout the years.

Talk about a “whirlwind” romance! On the ride home from their third flight, Charles (let’s just call him less than romantic!) proposes marriage: “…there’s one other thing…I can’t quite get it out of my mind…for the first time I was afraid. Not for myself—I’ve never been afraid for myself… The strange thing is, I was afraid for you… At first, I wasn’t sure I liked it, to tell the truth… But now, I believe I did—not that you were in danger, but—it seems I have a strong desire to protect you, and that must mean something. It must.” Anne: “What must it mean?” Charles: “It must mean that I should ask if you would consider marrying me…” Enter me…my thoughts--What?!? Really?!? At this point I felt Charles was much like his mother: cold, distant, lacking affection/compassion. Anne then realized Charles had been planning this over these past months, for as he had stated, he would never take an unnecessary risk. And what was her response? “I would like to think about it,” she replied in a “grave” voice, realizing that he would not approve of her answering impulsively. I wanted to scream at her—“No-o-o-o-o, Anne!!! Don’t do it! Don’t just do whatever you feel you can to please and appease him! Wrong! Wrong! Wrong!” She was ALREADY doing what she felt he wanted her to do and in the way he would prefer her to do it! So sad and so wrong… She was definitely a “pleaser”! Four years later she realizes neither of them had mentioned the word “love” that day/evening, but “…we didn’t need to… We were too special for that. For ordinary words, spoken by ordinary couples.” At this point, I almost gagged…she was definitely just as strongly idolizing him as the rest of her family and the world had done. But then I reminded myself, who among us has not been “swept off their feet” at some point by a potential partner? After all, her hand was tingling in the aftermath of their first handshake upon meeting…that had to mean something, didn’t it? :) 

Anne felt that Charles, who was so good, brave, and driven (As she soon discovers, he could “drive” others as well!) had seen her “standing in the shadows” and realized she was braver than she knew herself to be; she found herself wondering just what she could accomplish beyond flying an airplane simply because he thought she could do it? Anne did accomplish much in her adult life: first licensed female glider pilot in the U.S. after allowing Charles to literally push her off a mountain, instructing her, “Aim high to find the best current, and then trust the wind!” She was convinced she would surely die, though she did not and was exhilarated as she was able to successfully navigate through the air. Charles forced her to learn celestial navigation, and he was the one who forced her to write, by having her edit his book, The Spirit of St. Louis, for which he won the Pulitzer Prize, never even acknowledging her contributions to his manuscript in his acceptance speech! Though she did persevere to become a successful published writer on her own in later life with Gift from the Sea being her most well-known publication. Charles was definitely an emotionally abusive male, especially to young Charlie, who was kidnapped.

The Literary Wives Questions:

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

Although Anne began and continued her marriage relationship with Charles for quite some time as a “follower” of his “lead,” she did eventually find herself and begin to live life on her own terms, much as a single person! This occurred once the children were out of the house, that “empty nest” can finally provide a double-duty mother such as Anne enough time and energy for self-nurturing. I can certainly relate to that! Anne had to try to “make up” for everything her children needed from a father and didn’t receive: warmth, understanding, and his virtually constant absence because his focus was always “on something bigger, something more important, than his family.” Although he had bothered to return home periodically while the children were still living at home, he stopped once they had moved out. Little did she know this other more important “thing” was actually three other families overseas. Honestly, this guy was full of energy, wasn’t he? Maintaining four “marriage-type” relationships, each with multiple children? Though I would assume he devoted little to no positive emotional energy to any one of these relationships… But I digress. At least Anne did have the official "wife" title which may well have enabled her to achieve more than she might have, though I believe much of her motivation was provided by Charles' insistence and prompting that she learn and do. I can't imagine that he had similar relationships with the other three women ("wives"?) in his life. Sometimes, being the one woman with the official title of legal "wife" may be a good thing. I am reminded of Alice in Sittinfeld's American Wife, as her adult life was definitely determined to a great degree by the fact she was the US President's "wife." 

(2) In what way does this woman define "wife"--or in what way is she defined by "wife"?

I believe Anne was defined totally by her role as Charles's wife while their marriage only involved the two of them. Once Charlie's disappearance occurred, however, I believe she actually served as both "father" and "mother" to her children, and much less as "wife" to Charles, particularly since he didn't spend much time around his (US) family. Though she did retain the title, she redefined herself once her children were raised and on their own, and I feel she emotionally and mentally disregarded her role as Charles's "wife," as a way to cope with her husband's absence, and to give herself permission to establish her own life and discover a kind and caring relationship with another man, at least for awhile. 

I was glad Anne finally received some true love, acceptance, and appreciation from a partner in her life; it is sad that person did not happen to be her husband. I ended by still feeling sympathy and much empathy in many ways for Anne…it is tough enough to discover that your partner/husband has been unfaithful to you in marriage, but to realize he maintained three other separate families? I consider that to be unimaginable, though it was Anne’s reality…in the end. 

As of October 25, 2013, another printing of the hardcover version of this book has just begun, and a movie is in the works! Congratulations to Melanie Benjamin! Have you read this book yet? If so, what was your impression? And if not, what's keeping you from it? I feel as if I know Anne intimately as a result of this book. What a feat for an author to achieve!

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