1/15/2013

The Aviator's Wife by Melanie Benjamin

Book Description:
In the spirit of Loving Frank and The Paris Wife, acclaimed novelist Melanie Benjamin pulls back the curtain on the marriage of one of America’s most extraordinary couples: Charles Lindbergh and Anne Morrow Lindbergh.


If you read this book to find out what it was like to be Charles Lindbergh's wife, you will not be disappointed ... assuming that Melanie Benjamin has managed to see the marriage accurately, as if through Anne Morrow's eyes. The background for the book was extensively researched, and so, one would hope, she is on target. However, with the wealth of information at her disposal, it was  necessary to downplay some events while highlighting others. Additionally, there is the problem of a contemporary person trying to understand a marriage that began in the 1920's, as well as understanding class distinctions. These were not 21st century, middle class people with middle class values. They were also not ordinary people, or Charles wasn't. His endless drive and ambition was both a blessing (fame and fortune) and a bane (impossible to live with) to his family.  

The book covers the first time Anne and Charles met, on Christmas in Mexico, when Anne was still an undergraduate at Smith, and her father was the U.S. ambassador to Mexico. It follows Anne's life until Charles's death. 

We are all familiar with Charles Lindbergh's flight across the Atlantic Ocean, that made him almost a God in people's eyes throughout his entire life. Charles and Anne were married several years after the flight, and so both lived their lives with all the perks, as well as the annoyances, of fame. For Anne, it also meant being overshadowed at all times by her famous husband's opinions and activities. Though Anne was an excellent pilot in her own right, people always viewed her as an accessory, and were more apt to ask her about her clothing than her piloting skills. 


I would like to have learned more about the two years they spent criss-crossing the globe, scoping out air travel routes and so on, before their first child was born, but Ms. Benjamin chose to play this out more like a footnote to their lives. But indeed, other events did tend to diminish the significance of the travels, especially the kidnapping and subsequent death of their first child, Charles, who was about 18 months old. It took a toll on their marriage, which never recovered from it. 


Then, before World War II, Charles, who was flagrantly anti-Semitic, became known as a Nazi sympathizer. His fame was tarnished until World War II, but after apologizing for his earlier opinions, and wholeheartedly desirous of serving his country in the war efforts, he was finally allowed to do so. 


His fame was restored after that, and he spent much of the rest of his life as a globe-trotter, attending to various needs in the aviation industry. 


It meant leaving Anne at home to raise the family that eventually grew to five living heirs. They were wealthy people, and so Anne always had (except during World War II) ample paid help, including cooks, cleaning ladies, chauffeurs, nannies, gardeners. The thing she didn't have was the physical presence or emotional support of Charles, who came home only about five times a year.  


When he was home, he was a stern, emotionless, unforgiving, taskmaster and perfectionist. He was a great man who achieved great things, and he expected every bit as much from his more ordinary wife and children. Finding it hard to live up to their husband and father's demands, the family was happier when he wasn't home to bully them. 


But the bullying wasn't always bad. He did finally get Anne to do something with her writing talent, and she became somewhat of a famous writer in her time, probably due more to her famous husband than to any other reason. 


As it turned out, Charles had three other families around the world, and six other children, besides Anne and their brood, which was partly why he was never home. As it also turned out, Anne took a lover in her family doctor. 


The Lindberghs shared qualities that brought them together. Both enjoyed flying, and apparently their sexual chemistry was strong and continued to be so throughout their lives. They had children between them. 


There were also qualities that split them apart: She was from a high society background, and loved what I like to call the Edith Wharton lifestyle. Charles, on the other hand, detested society folk, who he felt were silly and lazy. He far preferred to spend his time accomplishing important things in life. 


Despite living mostly apart for the final 20 years of their marriage, they stayed married until Charles's death in 1974. As someone who controlled every aspect of his family's lives (or tried to, despite being away from them most of the time), Charles wanted Anne to be buried next to him in Hawaii. 


Upon her death, as her greatest act of rebellion, she refused to obey his last command and was not buried beside him. 


It was an interesting book and well worth reading, even if neither Anne nor Charles are especially likable.  


Book source: Review copy provided by NetGalley.

  


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