Disclosure: I received an ARC (Advance Reader’s Copy) of this novel for review purposes via Artemis Azima at Engelman & Co. The book is available in stores as of today. * I am an Amazon Associate. Purchasing links in this review are provided by Amazon.com and will generate a small referral fee for me if used.
Opening Lines: “Breakfast in five-star hotels was always the same. This was what Sylvie Serfer Woodruff thought as the elevator descended from the sixth floor and opened onto the gleaming expanse of the lobby of the Four Seasons in Philadelphia. After thirty-two years of marriage, fourteen of them as the wife of the senior senator from New York, after visits to six continents and some of the major cities of the world, perhaps she should have been able to come up with something more profound about human nature and common ground and the ties that bind us all, but there it was—her very own insight.”
When Sylvie Serfer met Richard Woodruff in law school, she had wild curls, wide hips, and lots of opinions. Decades later, Sylvie has remade herself as the ideal politician’s wife—her hair dyed and straightened, her hippie-chick wardrobe replaced by tailored knit suits. At fifty-seven, she ruefully acknowledges that her job is staying twenty pounds thinner than she was in her twenties and tending to her husband, the senator. Lizzie, the Woodruffs’ younger daughter, is at twenty-four a recovering addict, whose mantra HALT (Hungry? Angry? Lonely? Tired?) helps her keep her life under control. Still, trouble always seems to find her. Her older sister, Diana, an emergency room physician, has everything Lizzie failed to achieve—a husband, a young son, the perfect home—and yet she’s trapped in a loveless marriage. With temptation waiting in one of the ER’s exam rooms, she finds herself craving more. After Richard’s extramarital affair makes headlines, the three women are drawn into the painful glare of the national spotlight. Once the press conference is over, each is forced to reconsider her life, who she is and who she is meant to be.
Comments: Spoiler for a review not yet posted – I was a bit disappointed with Jennifer Weiner’s last novel, Best Friends Forever, so I was a little nervous about reading her newest, which is being released today. Spoiler for this review – I got over my reservations quickly, though.
The Woodruff women are going through simultaneous crises, and while these crises don’t necessarily draw mother and daughters together, they do affect how they relate to one another. Younger daughter Lizzie is recently out of rehab and trying to prove – to herself as well as everyone else – that she’s not just a screwup. Older daughter Diana’s perfectly planned life – mother, wife, doctor – is being turned inside out by her involvement with an attractive intern. A similar involvement is doing the same thing to their mother, Sylvie – except in her case, the one who’s involved is her husband, New York Senator Richard Woodruff. It’s a ripped-from-the-headlines plot element – the scandal of the high-profile politician caught fooling around, and the spouse’s reaction to the revelations – but in Weiner’s hands, it’s not necessarily the same story you’ve heard before.
Weiner takes some chances in building so much of her story around an incident so contemporary, and there are details in the ARC – references to a married golfer with a string of girlfriends and an Academy Award-winning actress’ cheating husband – that could potentially date the novel. However, the themes related to it – the public presentation and the inner workings of marriages, the challenges of knowing and creating who you are, coping with life’s curveballs – are pretty timeless, and Weiner explores them through some of the strongest, most vivid characters she’s created in some time. Sylvie, a woman who finds herself at a loss after more than thirty years of making her husband’s career her own life’s work, particularly appealed to me, but each of the Woodruff women was well-drawn, distinct, and layered. I found something to love in all of them, even brittle Diana.
I think Fly Away Home may be Jennifer Weiner’s most ambitious, accomplished novel yet. She challenges her characters with common, yet complicated, topics like infidelity, addiction, unplanned pregnancy and family/career conflict, and acknowledges that there are no one-size-fits-all answers. The novel’s humor isn’t contrived, and neither is its humanity and emotional resonance. Books like this are why I enjoy contemporary women’s fiction, and why Jennifer Weiner remains one of my favorite authors in the niche.