Below is written by Laura Wexler, a freelance writer in Athens, Georgia.
Reading Anita Shreve’s novel, The Pilot’s Wife, is like unraveling a thread. From the moment Kathryn Lyons answers the late-night knock at her door, she and the reader set upon a course that leads to a surprising revelation — that Kathryn’s life is not what she thought it was.
Kathryn is married to Jack, a pilot on the Boston-London run. They have a 15-year-old daughter, Mattie, and a charming old house in a small New England beach town. It’s a normal enough life. They have a normal enough marriage — Kathryn and Jack were once passionately in love, and now, years later, they have grown comfortable and separate.
When Kathryn answers that late-night knock, she is told that Jack’s plane exploded off the coast of Ireland. Adding to her horror are airline investigators, pilots union investigators, and TV crews — all looking for Kathryn to reveal something about Jack that could lead them to the source of the explosion. Each day, it seems, the news generates new bits of information and rumors. Each day there is a new wrinkle in what might have been a simple, tragic story: Take a family of three and subtract one.
At first, Kathryn can’t believe that the explosion was anything other than an accident. She knows Jack, after all, and she knows that he wasn’t involved in any political causes. He enjoyed hockey, playing on his computer, and being with his wife and daughter. But, in the slow and horrible way that the truth often reveals itself, bits and pieces of Jack’s life surface that don’t fit with Kathryn’s picture of him. Found in Jack’s pants pocket is an envelope with an initial marked on it (not a “K”). There’s a receipt for a silken bathrobe that never arrives at Kathryn’s house. And Jack, she later learns, did not spend his last night at the crew apartment in London.
The novel is essentially a mystery, with Kathryn playing the unwilling sleuth who must follow her husband’s trail backwards — all the way to Ireland. When she hires a boatman to take her to the crash site, Kathryn circles the wreckage and says, “To be relieved of love . . . was to give up a terrible burden.”
Because Kathryn is so distraught and grief-stricken, she doesn’t add up the clues as fast as the reader, making the book a little slow at times. However, when Kathryn essentially solves the mystery of Jack, she realizes that she never knew him, and never will. Her search leads her not only to some answers, but to a realization — that the possibility is slim of ever fully knowing those we love, even those we love the most.