Another solid historical novel from Melanie Benjamin, once again, in the tradition of her books Alice I Have Been and The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb, taking a first-person view on the life of a woman best known for her connection to a famous man. As with the two previous books, Benjamin reveals her subject — in this case Anne Morrow Lindbergh, writer, aviator, and wife of Charles Lindbergh — to be a fascinating woman in her own right.
Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s life has all the raw material necessary for a great novel: set in a time of tremendous change and social upheaval (the novel begins in 1920s America and crossing the globe over the next decades, including a stop in Nazi Germany — the Lindberghs, like many of their time, expressed cautious admiration for at least some of Hitler’s goals and accomplishments long before the worst of his crimes were made public), linked to the career of her famous husband, and scarred by a life-altering tragedy, the kidnapping and murder of their twenty-month-old son. The Lindberghs were among the first people to bear the full brunt of being twentieth-century American celebrities, with all the adulation and loss of privacy that implies. The horrific crime of which they were victims is the ultimate cautionary tale about the dangers of celebrity: allow the public access to your life (albeit unwillingly, as was often the case with the Lindberghs who would clearly have preferred a more private life), and that access may turn into an attack.
Against the backdrop of this huge story — not just a couple but a nation being dragged through a century of change and upheaval — Benjamin sets the intensely personal, introspective story of a shy young woman, uncertain of herself and her own gifts, whose name becomes linked to that of an immensely powerful man long before she has any chance of learning who she is in her own right. Indeed, she lives in a society where, despite the pre-feminist example of her strong-minded mother, nobody expects Anne to forge an independent identity. She is expected to be an extension of her husband, and for a long time that is exactly what she is, even as she struggles both against the expectations of that role and against the contradictions of Charles Lindbergh’s often chilly personality. She finds her husband harder to love as he grows older and more inflexible, and this distance between them grows alongside Anne’s own efforts to establish an independent identity. In the end, with the publication of several books (including her best-known, Gift from the Sea), she does this so successfully that, although she and Charles Lindbergh remained married until his death, they lived essentially separate lives for the last few decades of their marriage.
Once again, Melanie Benjamin has done a skillful job of bringing a real woman to life from the pages of history — and, as a bonus, has made me determined to read Gift from the Sea, a book I’ve never gotten around to reading before.