Well, here we are! The fourth installment of the Literary Wives series. We’ve glimpsed the life of First Lady Laura Bush in American Wife, struggled with Hadley Hemingway in her one-sided marriage to Ernest in The Paris Wife, and we’ve seen two selfish criminals fall in love in A Reliable Wife. Angela, Emily, Audra, and I have had a delightful time reading these books and chatting about them with you. …But don’t worry! The series will continue. Stay tuned for more details soon!
The Aviator’s Wife by Melanie Benjamin; published 2013 by Delacorte Press
I’m happy to say that this was by far the most enjoyable wife book we’ve read, even if the marriage itself was just as sad as those in the other books. Once again, we got to imagine what it must have been like to be married to a famous man: in this case, Charles Lindbergh, the famous aviator who was the first person to make a solo flight across the Atlantic, in the famous plane The Spirit of St. Louis.
The book reminds me much of American Wife, in the breadth and depth it covers. We meet Anne Morrow when she has just graduated from Smith. She doesn’t know what she will do with herself; she lacks the purpose that her siblings and friends seem to have. Until she meets Charles Lindbergh—the celebrity that every teenage girl is in love with. But he asks Anne to go up in a plane with him, and she never comes down.
It’s a story about flying just as much as it is about Charles, and I think that’s what I enjoyed most about it. Marriage is at once the part of her life giving and denying her freedom. He marries her because he needs a partner, someone to be his “crew.” He teaches her everything he knows about flying, literally and metaphorically. She learns to love flying, and that itself is freedom.
1. What does this book say about wives or about the experience of being a wife?
Charles Lindbergh is looking for someone very specific in a wife: someone smart, who can learn navigation and flying, who has talent but won’t compete with him, and who doesn’t get sick in an airplane. Anne fits the bill. She has dreams of becoming a writer, but she quickly learns after their marriage that her dreams need to be sacrificed to his already-established life of flying. On their honeymoon, a time supposed to be filled with romance, he immediately starts teaching her to fly, and callously expects her to have dinner on his table, even though, as the daughter of a diplomat, she’s never cooked a day in her life. But she learns to cook, as she learns to fly.
He puts her through the most ridiculous tests to see how obedient, how docile she can be: making her fly solo, shooting her off the side of a mountain, making her navigate by the stars. “He led, I followed, and that meant I had to keep up with him,” she says.
The way Charles treats her is paradoxical. He very clearly establishes his control, but he also gives her more freedom than most other women—especially wives—had at that time. Among his friends, who felt he shouldn’t take his wife up in the air with him, he is quick to defend her ability as just as good as any male pilot’s. Though he is more sought-after to write, he always asks for her input and humbly accepts her edits to his writing. He often tells her that he doesn’t want her to get caught up in domestic duties, that she is too good to spend her days cleaning sinks and looking after children.
But these turn out to just be words. He is a micro-manager to the nth degree, controlling every aspect of his family’s life even though he is rarely home. After their first baby, Charles Jr., is kidnapped and murdered, and after being criticized as a Nazi-sympathizer during WWII, Charles tries to steer his life the way he steers his plane: by charting, planning, making lists, and above all—disregarding his emotions. He continues to use Anne: first to fly, then to have as many children as possible, then to help him write. She is always hopeful that her obedience to him will make him love her more. But it doesn’t.
2. In what way does this woman define “wife”—or in what way is she defined by “wife”?
On the surface, Anne allows herself to be defined by Charles’s definition of “wife.” Her biggest rebellion was that she had an affair—but what good is that rebellion if he never knew about it? It may have made her feel better, but it didn’t actually free her from his control. In my opinion, the better rebellions were the smaller ones, the ones he did see, the ones that proved to him that she was just as strong as he was.
Charles is forever heartbroken by the death of his baby, and nothing is able to heal that wound in his life. In fact, it is Anne who emerges stronger. She allows herself to grieve—even though he forbids it—and is able to heal. He never does.
Charles pushes Anne to write, believes in her potential, and finally she does; Gift From the Sea is her letter to other women, urging them to follow their dreams and live for themselves. She begins to do so herself, renting an apartment in the city where she became known in literary circles as a writer in her own right. Charles always insisted on the importance of being detached, and she learned the lesson from him well: “Finally, I was strong. I was able. Able to separate my life from his; able to separate myself, from him. Like all surgical procedures, it would not be without pain and regret.”
It’s not until Charles dies, though, that Anne is truly able to be free. “Charles taught me how to be alone, long before I ever wanted to be. But now, I do. Now, I’m ready. …I will fly, alone. Wearing my own pair of goggles, my view of the world just as unique, just as wonderful, as his was, but different. Mine. Alone.”
Once again, in this book I found the main struggle to be between freedom alone or oppression together. It makes me incredibly sad. I don’t want to be alone, yet I don’t want to be constrained and imprisoned either. In the books we’ve read, wives seem to only exist in one or the other. But I hope, in the books to come, that we find some different marriages that provide more hope for “real life.”