I first read Anita Shreve’s popular novel, The Pilot’s Wife, shortly after it was published in 1998. While the book was no means a literary sensation or even highly acclaimed by critics, it did gain wide readership by virtue of being chosen as an “Oprah’s Book Club” selection for March 1999. (While this club does not exist anymore, it was quite an honor to be selected, in addition to dramatically boosting sales.) At the time I read The Pilot’s Wife, I also read quite a few other books by Anita Shreve that I recall enjoying, especially her most well-known book, The Weight of Water. That said, I would not have sought out Anita Shreve to read again, except for a recent first visit to Maine, where its unique geography of multiple islands dotting the coastline reminded me of a fascinating historical fiction set in these islands that I had read a long time ago, and which I wanted to re-read now that I had actually been there. While I couldn’t remember exactly what that book was, I thought it might be an Anita Shreve novel, given that many of her books were set in Maine and along the coast.
Well, as it turned out, it wasn’t – I borrowed several possible Anita Shreve books from the library and needed only a quick perusal to determine that none of them was the one I was looking for. I did not even find myself wanting to re-read them now, even though it had been over 15 years since I had first read them — except for The Pilot’s Wife. I started reading it, and found the plot even more compelling now than when I read it all those years ago. Kathryn, whose husband, Jack, is a pilot for a commercial airliner has just been informed that her husband has died in a plane crash. As the book unfolds, the details begin to emerge – that the crash was caused by an explosion, which in turn was caused by a bomb, and that it may have been Jack himself who took the bomb on board, making him responsible not only for his own death but that of the other crew members and over a hundred passengers that were on board. This notion of “suicide-bombing” is one that we are, unfortunately, all too familiar with now, which makes the book seem eerily timely, even though it was written over 15 years ago. As always, there is some political unrest underlying these tragedies, and while the one in The Pilot’s Wife had to do with Ireland and the IRA, it is not all that different from the political turmoil and terrorism threats we constantly live with today.
Apart from this analogy that makes the book even more relatable now, The Pilot’s Wife primarily revolves around Kathryn and how she copes with not only the death of her husband and the revelation that he may be a suicide-bomber, but also with the fact that there was a side to him about which she knew nothing– that he had a whole other family, including wife and kids, in another country and that he was able to do this without giving her the faintest hint or suspicion that something might be wrong. The suspense is well built up, and the book is a compelling page-turner, keeping you hooked right up the end. Along the way, there are some touching moments highlighting the relationship Kathryn has with her teenage daughter, who is at the height of her turbulent and rebellious years. There is also the customary romance — but with just an inkling of it given the story-line — of Kathryn with the man from the pilot’s union, Robert, who brings her the news of Jack’s plane crash and guides her through its aftermath, including the frenzied publicity, media coverage, and crash investigation.
While I found The Pilot’s Wife a good read even the second time around – and an easy one – the ending was so abrupt that I was sure that there were some pages missing in the library copy of the book that I had. I spent a lot of time searching online for a free electronic copy of the book, but I couldn’t find one (which, by the way, is a testament to how popular the book is even now – its pricing is still the same, even after so many years of being published). Finally, I went to the local library of the place I was on vacation at and found a copy of the book – and discovered, much to my chagrin, that the ending of the book was exactly the same as the one in the copy that I had.
In conclusion, The Pilot’s Wife was a nice, easy, and interesting read, but with an ending that didn’t seem like an ending at all!
The Pilot’s Wife
Author: Anita Shreve
Publisher: Little, Brown
Publication date: May 1998
Contributor: Lachmi Khemlani runs a technology publication in the San Francisco Bay Area.