Want author Lynn Steger Strong stretches her scope from the nuclear to the extended family in Flight, a story of adult siblings and their partners and children gathering for Christmas for the first time since their mother’s death. Helen, the recently deceased and seemingly universally beloved matriarch, has passed away just eight months prior, and her children are still wrapping their minds and hearts around her absence. Her adult children, Kate, Henry, and Martin, are all married, respectively to Josh, Alice, and Tess. Kate and Josh, and Martin and Tess, have children themselves, while Henry and Alice weren’t able to. All told, there’s a lot of characters running around in this house and in this novel. While Want was told in an almost stream of consciousness style, a rushed and internal monologue of the sole narrator, Flight is told in a chorus of voices, with perspectives shifting fast and often from one member of the family to the next.
The family is gathering at Henry and Alice’s house upstate for the holiday, to be together, to celebrate, and also to deal with some business: the fact of their mother’s vacant house in Florida, and what to do with it. Kate and her husband recently lost all their money in a bad crypto gamble (obviously the husband’s fault) and now wish to relocate to Florida. Most of Kate’s energy will be spent convincing her siblings to allow this, along with trying to reconceive what holiday cheer even is without Helen. Meanwhile Tess and Martin are dealing with the fallout of some (non-sexual, kind of nebulous) accusations leveled against Martin at his university, and Alice and Henry are still grappling with infertility and the new rural life they have chosen. Alice, in the throes of post-miscarriage confusion and sadness, has switched from being an artist to a social worker; one of her clients is single-mother, recovering addict, 23-year old Quinn, and her 8-year old daughter Madeleine. Depictions of Quinn and Madeleine’s relationship and home life make up the side-story to the main event of the family’s gathering, another snapshot at what family can look like and mean.
Flight is about something so many of us have already experienced, or surely will experience down the road, of a family splintering down fault lines that only reveal themselves when the glue of the matriarch or patriarch passes away. This is a fascinating topic to me: I’ve seen it in my own family, I’ve seen it in others. It’s devastating and complicated and goes so deep into a family’s past that the amount of details and memories to wade through is simply overwhelming. This family seemed to have remarkably little to work through, other than small eldest/youngest sibling grievances about fairness and responsibility. The biggest issue seems to be that they all don’t like Kate’s annoying husband, Josh, who seems deservedly unlikable. Their love and grief for their mother also reads as completely uncomplicated; Kate at one point refers to Helen and hopes she isn’t “lionizing” her, and yet lionize she and Strong continue to do.
The definition of a good novel is multifold, ever shifting, but, to me, what it comes down to is the ability to both reflect and surprise. Strong succeeds most fully on the first half of the equation, and depicts a straightforward situation of a family figuring out what to do with their recently deceased mother’s property. Sometimes all it takes is the death of a parent to lay bare how fully disparate the rest of the members of the family are, like a puzzle missing all the connecting pieces. Add in the fact of partners, who come with their own specific backgrounds, emotionally and culturally, and the members of the unit grow ever further apart. It is fitting that in Flight the fight of ownership and fairness ends up revolving around a house, the most physical representation of family that there is. There is no argument over whether a house is a house, in the way that the word “family” is constantly up for discussion, constantly remade and projected, so to cling to the tangible, the undeniably real, is a story as old as time.
Strong excels at demonstrating the disjointedness, this awkward reimagining of what everyone is supposed to be to one another now that their mother is gone. Interactions between the in-laws, between the siblings, seem to barely skim the surface of internality, to the depths that must exist beneath their relationships. Kate has an adamant need for the children to dress up for a “Christmas photograph” to carry on a tradition created by Helen years ago. The idea of the photograph, a theme repeated later in the book, does a good simple job at expressing what family is, in many ways: already a memory, an image frozen in time. Once they have this Christmas picture, it doesn’t really matter what else occurs over this holiday. They will probably only remember the photograph.
All told, I wished for more. The downfall of a multi-person perspective is that it takes that much more work to fully flesh out each character, which, in a 226-page novel, takes a precise and efficient hand. There’s a reason Jonathan Franzen novels are a million pages long, and whatever Franzen complaints aside, we know his characters, we understand their insecurities, their ticks, their dreams, their desires. Strong attempts to sum up the entirety of her character’s personalities in the scope of a couple personalized paragraphs, glancing upon some integral reason the character is acting the way they are that, if fully explored, complicated, and discerned, could make up an entirety of a book. As it is, I was either tired by the tropes, or shocked by the brutality, but neither really added up to an understanding of them as people in a new way. Throwing Quinn and Madeleine in there, on top of everything, only spread the bandwidth of character exploration even thinner.
Perhaps I am faulting Strong for doing exactly the project she set out to do, as in to capture an uber-realistic portrait of life, in all its mundane normalcy. For example, while the italicized thoughts of members of the family felt too obvious to me, on the nose, like Kate thinking “The only thing you had to do was keep money in the bank” while looking at her husband, reminding us yet again of their marriage’s disappointments and tension, this anger would, in theory, be ever present, boring in its simplicity and repetition. In the end, I felt the same about Flight as I did about Want: everything about it sounds right up my alley, Strong’s prose has moments of real heft and poignancy, and yet in the end the novel didn’t quite have the surprise and transcendence necessary to elevate its story of mundanity. Except the very last page, that is, when I finally felt a real crack in the surface, an insight of sweet simplicity into the truth of relationships, that we will always be on a journey of understanding who we are to one another, occasionally captured, occasionally understood, but never to arrive.
By Lynn Steger Strong
Published November 8, 2022