I’m not sure who tweeted their happiness about receiving a proof of Lynn Steger Strong’s Flight having enjoyed her fiction before but I’m grateful to them. That lovely, understated cover also added to its allure. Set in snowy New York state, Strong’s novel follows three siblings and their families facing their first Christmas without their beloved mother.
She wishes this visit were already over, that they could all be heading back, grateful for the efforts everybody made but relieved to once again be separate.
Tess and Martin are late setting off from their smart, new city apartment. Tess has gone into the office irritating Martin who flinches at her allusion to his own job insecurity. Kate and Josh are on the road with their three children, Kate fretting about Josh’s catastrophic investments and her plan to ask her siblings to let her family live in their mother’s Florida home. Alice is readying the house while Henry works on the art installation he hopes will help his nephews and nieces understand what’s happening to their world. All of them are missing Helen who made such a pleasurable ritual of the holidays but particularly the women: Tess thinking of the warmth her mother-in-law-offered; Alice wishing she and Henry could have given Helen another grandchild and Kate determined to replicate her mother’s version of Christmas. Over the next few days, the dynamics of this family will take a different shape, their relationship to each other brought into sharp focus by a crisis involving another family less fortunate than their own.
He wonders how it is, in all these years, they never learned to talk without their mother. Now there is only all the space and quiet where she should be and is not.
Strong unfolds her novel from the perspectives of each of her characters, shifting smoothly from one to the other, unfolding backstories while revealing the tensions between them. A thread of suspense builds when a young mother and child are enveloped in a crisis but this is largely a character-driven novel. Strong excels at depicting family tensions and her female characterisation is particularly convincing: Tess, carefully controlled and judgemental but missing Helen badly; Kate who wants only to be a mother but can’t say so and Alice who knows she will never have a child, channelling too much of her longing into watching six-year-old Maddie whose social worker she is. Helen is no longer there to smooth things over, present in her absence through the dressing up of the children in smart clothes and the making of a pie which goes disastrously wrong. Themes of family, adulthood, parenthood, grief and loss run through this quietly absorbing novel, portrayed with empathy and insight through this middle-aged family brought face-to-face with its privilege. By then end of it, dynamics have shifted and, perhaps, settled in a way Helen would have approved.
Scribner UK: London 9781398519138 240 pages Hardback (Read via NetGalley)