In “The Aviator’s Wife”, Melanie Benjamin shines a light on the rarely told story of author and aviator Anne Lindbergh, whose accomplishments and personality often fall in the shadow of her husband, Charles Lindbergh.
Benjamin’s historical fiction novel focuses on the marriage of Anne and Charles Lindbergh. According to the book’s accounts, Lindberghs’ marriage may have begun blissfully, but their relationship slowly descended as time and tragedy wore on them. One of the strongest points of this novel is Benjamin’s ability to sharply contrast the high and low points of the couple’s marriage. After all, the narration begins at the story’s end. In just the first few pages of “The Aviator’s Wife,” Anne Lindbergh learns of Charles Lindbergh’s multiple affairs and Charles is approaching his death. But in the next chapter, Benjamin illuminates the days when Charles and Anne first met: a period full of innocence, flirtation, sweet gestures and hope.
The two marry quickly, and Anne is forced to adapt to a new lifestyle, which includes a persistent American press and a demanding husband. With the press stalking their every move, Charles requires that Anne learn how to fly a plane, and she becomes the first woman to earn a first class glider pilot’s license. In her efforts to please Charles, Anne loses her shyness and becomes more independent and competent. Yet she stays dependent on pleasing Charles, often doing exactly what he says and following his every direction. It is not until later in their marriage that Anne begins to defy and resent Charles. Benjamin writes the novel from Anne’s point of view, and her frequent heartbreak and rage is displayed perfectly on the page.
The Lindberghs’ lives are mixed in with complicated and detailed historical events that they often play a major role in. From the kidnapping and murder of their first child (the “crime of the century”) to the Lindberghs’ self-exile to Germany, Benjamin follows the history with expert eyes. She gives each event appropriate detail and equal coverage. For instance, it would have been easy for Benjamin to focus too much of the novel on the kidnaping of Charles Lindbergh, Jr. Instead, Benjamin gives the incident proper play and does an excellent job referring to it throughout the rest of the novel, illustrating the devastating effects it had on Anne and Charles’ marriage.
Throughout her life, Anne accomplished many things that were ignored and tarnished by her husband. She was a successful aviator and a novelist, yet these accomplishments tend to get lost in the shadow of her husband. “You’re just a mom now,” one of Anne’s children remarks to her during her later years of life. “That’s all I can imagine you as.” With scenes like these, Benjamin does an excellent job showing how Anne’s successful life is often overlooked.
It is frustrating that the novel focuses on telling Anne’s life story through her marriage with her husband. If the point of “The Aviator’s Wife” is to focus on a historical figure who is often ignored, then is it not self-destructive to Benjamin’s purpose to tell that story through the lens of the institution that tied Anne to the man that left her in the shadows? Benjamin could have made the novel stronger if she made the focus more on the aviator’s wife herself and less on the aviator. She could have done this by spending more time on Anne before she met Charles and after Charles died. However, this one weak point is not enough to bring the novel down as a whole, and “The Aviator’s Wife” is still an enjoyable read.
Published on January 23, 2013 as "Novel spotlights oft-forgotten Mrs. Lindbergh, lady aviator".