Thursday, August 12, 2010


I thought I smelled death/
- It was the smell of crayons -/
But it was just art.

Book Review: The Pilot’s Wife by Anita Shreve (1998)

On our trip to the North Coast of California and Oregon this weekend, my mom and I listened to Anita Shreve’s novel The Pilot’s Wife on cassette. Below is my two-part review, as well as a few other thoughts.

Parallels Between The Pilot’s Wife and Ethan Frome

I first began to consider the parallels between Anita Shreve’s novel The Pilot’s Wife and Edith Wharton’s classic book Ethan Frome when the narrator of The Pilot’s Wife reveals that its main character, Katherine Lyons, is a fan of Wharton’s works. From there, I noticed a series of parallels between the two stories – enough to lead me to believe that Shreve wrote The Pilot’s Wife in part as a rebuttal to Ethan Frome. Warning: If you haven’t read these novels, please be aware that this review contains spoilers about both books.

Each story uses a major accident as a pivotal plot point. Both novels share a New England setting, themes of alleged or attempted suicide, and infidelity.

However, the most striking parallel between the two novels is the use of a character named Mattie to symbolize youth and vitality. Both Matties are deeply loved by the respective title characters. However, while Wharton’s Mattie Silver embodies for Ethan Frome an ultimately unattainable and ephemeral bright spot in his otherwise dull life, Shreve’s Mattie Lyons is the motivation for Kathryn to heal and to live on after the sudden and tragic loss of her husband. Through Mattie Silver’s tragic sledding accident, Wharton Wharton asserts the idea that people should resign themselves to their preordained fates, however tragic. Shreve rebuts this notion by asserting through Mattie Lyons that hope and vivaciousness are worth striving for.

Feminist Critique

The Pilot’s Wife. The title immediately relegates Kathryn to secondary status, rather than defining her as a woman in her own right.

The book’s dust jacket – er, the audio book’s cover –informs the reader that the main character follows a series of clues to discover her husband lived a secret double life, of which she was utterly unaware. Mom and I speculated throughout the novel about what Jack Lyons’ secret life might consist of. We mainly suspected him of involvement with the CIA. While his actual double life as a smuggler for the Irish Republican Army is just as intriguing, Kathryn’s discovery of his secret second wife and family merely recapitulates the theme of the woman-as-wife.

Clearly this relative role is the point – how does a catastrophe such as the loss of a husband permanently alter a woman accustomed to defining herself as a wife? How does she rise to the occasion of having her character tested in such an excruciating way?

Toward the end of the novel, Kathryn spends a considerable amount of time trying to understand her husband’s motives, and the links between Jack’s infidelity and his involvement with the IRA. Ultimately, she decides they are two sides of the same coin. Undeniably, the author weaves these two strands of the plot together to create a complex portrait of the dual lives of Jack Lyons. I suppose, however, I would have liked to have seen parallel character development and independence on the part of Kathryn much earlier on in the story, rather than as what seemed to be a convenient afterthought as she grew accustomed to her new role as a widow. Even in her redemption as a widow and in her continuing role as a mother, we find she still defines herself primarily in relation to her husband and family – only now in relation to Jack’s absence.

Understand – I’m not saying there is anything inherently wrong with exploring a fictional woman’s relationship to her husband – relationships are an integral part of an individual’s life. Rather, I’m placing the novel into context as one more in a seemingly endless parade of stories in popular culture wherein the main female character is defined primarily by her relationship to her man or her family. Where the book disappoints is in its traditional and predictable focus on Kathryn’s relationship to her husband as the major driver of the plot, in combination with her helplessness and her willingness to bend to the will of men in her life. Relationships are an integral part of life, not to be ignored or diminished, but ultimately The Pilot’s Wife doesn’t allow for much development of its title character beyond that in her role as a wife and mother.

Is Listening Reading?

While my mom and I were listening to this book on tape, I mentioned that I wanted to write this review. She asked, “can you legitimately write a book review on a book you haven’t read?” I thought at first that she was joking, but when I quickly discovered she was not, I became a little incredulous. She was seriously asserting that listening to audio books doesn’t really “count” as reading! I told her it does because, assuming the book is not abridged, you’re still absorbing the same words. She maintained that physically holding a book in one’s hand and reading the words with one’s eyes is different from hearing the book read aloud. I can agree that the two are different experiences, but I still think it counts as legitimate reading.

What are your thoughts?