In Melanie Benjamin’s Random House Reader’s Circle essay, she discusses what makes a book a “book club” book, Anne Lindbergh, and what drew her to writing about this subject in The Aviator’s Wife. We have an excerpt below for you to enjoy!
THE LAST TO KNOW An Essay by Melanie Benjamin
What makes a book a “ book-club” book? Why are some books read and immediately passed around, so eager are readers to discuss them with someone? What kind of topic or writing style or time period provokes this kind of response more than others?
Those are million-dollar questions, of course. No one knows the real answer; there ’s no formula that can be passed along from author to author. We write what we have to, never imagining what the true response will be to the finished product. And occasionally, we get lucky.
“This is a great book-club book!” “I can’t wait to discuss it at our next meeting!” “I just had to tell all the women in my life to read it!”: These have been some of the heartfelt responses to The Aviator’s Wife, and I confess that every time I hear something like this, I giggle. And then scratch my head, trying to figure out just what I did in this book, what idea or emotion or overriding theme within the pages spoke to so many readers. And I think I’ve come up with a couple of answers.
First of all, Anne. Or Anne’s journey, I think it’s safe to call it. Tragic, brave, wry, sensitive, strong, passive, loyal (to a fault), duplicitous…all these adjectives have been used to describe her. And they all fit, at different times in her story; that ’s one reason why I was drawn to writing about Anne Morrow Lindbergh. There is such a duality to her! One minute she ’s a typical bride of her generation, docile, passive, allowing her husband to speak for her. The next, she’s flying through the air on her own, setting records, achieving firsts. One minute she’s frustratingly loyal to a man who doesn’t deserve it; the next she ’s embarking on a passionate affair. She ’s a tragic figure, suffering through her child ’s death; she ’s a controversial one, championing Hitler prior to World War II. We want to understand her, and we do, at times. Then we don’t. She’s not a one-size-fits-all heroine, not at all, and so we continue to examine her, parse her actions, better understand the time in which she lived, try to walk a mile in her shoes from a different era. Some of us can, others cannot. And so we continue to discuss her.
Then, of course, there is Charles. I’m honestly perplexed when readers tell me what a jerk he was in my book, how my bias against him is so obvious. Well, the truth is, I kind of liked him while I was writing him. Or perhaps the better way to put it is that I had a lot of sympathy for him—at times. I never stopped admiring what he had accomplished so young; I never stopped trying to understand how becoming the world ’s hero at the age of twenty-five—forever living your life pursued and hounded, always being asked to give more, do more, be more—might change a person. I never stopped remembering how his failure to bring his child home to Anne had to have haunted him the rest of his life.
I also never stopped being disappointed by him, however. Frustrated, as well. Just as Anne must have been. So Charles, too, provokes much discussion, particularly among younger women. Women born long after the feminist movement, who take it for granted that they’d never put up with a man like him, who would never stay loyal to him as Anne did. Women who don’t remember that they’ve come a long way, baby.
Then there is the history; there is simply so much of it! So much we didn’t read in our fourth-grade American history books. I came to this suspecting that while we all “knew” the Lindberghs, it was only in bits and pieces, never completely. And from the number of readers who have told me, “I had no idea!” about different parts of Anne and Charles’s story, I now know that I was right.
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