Hugh Mackay once said, “Life is messy. Relationships are complex. Outcomes are uncertain. People are irrational.” It certainly seems as though Karen White used that quote as the blueprint for her new novel Flight Patterns.
Georgia Chambers is an expert on fine china—especially Limoges, a French hard-paste porcelain. Her expertise means she is often consulted by families looking for valuations of precious possessions so she is only mildly surprised when her boss disrupts a weekend to introduce her to James Graf, a man in anxious need of her services. While the work is routine, the tea cup he brings her is anything but. Georgia has seen the peculiar pattern printed on it only once before, on a soup cup her mother kept hidden in her closet. In a move unlikely to happen in real life, Georgia finds herself traveling to visit her estranged family with James in the passenger seat of her 1970 Cadillac Coupe deVille convertible. She’s hopeful that having her mother’s soup cup as well as the tea cup will prove fruitful in finding the provenance of the seemingly unique piece.
This is fairly early in the book but it is also where the story really starts to unravel. James and Georgia reach her family home and find they are far from welcome. This is not a complete surprise since she is estranged from her family but it is frustrating because it feels like we have been thrown into the middle of the story. The dialog indicates that literally everyone in the family has some secret problem involving another family member, but the author coyly tries to keep us guessing as to what the issues between them all are. We know that they break down as follows: Georgia and her sister Maisy have something between them which has the bitter and childish Maisy wanting Georgia to leave immediately. Birdie, Georgia’s mother, is crazy by either choice or biology, the book vacillates between the two. There is a horror in her past that she can’t remember but it is apparently at the heart of all the problems in the family. The only person who knows the secret is Birdie’s dad, Georgia’s grandfather. This man loves Birdie so much he would rather see her in and out of institutions than have her face the ugly truth. (That’s sarcasm, by the way. He clearly loves himself so much he doesn’t want her to know the truth.) The china is certainly a piece of that riddle because he breaks the tea cup and has a stroke when Georgia and James begin looking for the original owners of the pieces. Finally, because there just aren’t enough enigmas for the reader to try and puzzle through, we have yet another mystery in the form of an event in James’ past, which is also tragic and volatile. Rather than dealing with his own problems, he avoids them by becoming involved in Georgia’s instead.
Most readers will guess a lot of the secrets right away, especially the one that lies between Maisy and Georgia, and knowing it means that the conversations alluding to it wind up sounding silly rather than intriguing. Knowing the truth also makes Maisy look far less sympathetic. Her internal dialogue is all about the pain she suffered because of something Georgia did but since the reader knows the high price Georgia paid to make amends Maisy comes across as completely selfish and thoughtless. When the final reveal does come it is anticlimactic and reflects poorly on this already unlikable character.
Georgia plays into this by being the typical martyr-heroine who loves her sister so much she will take any and all abuse from her. Towards the end of the novel the author does have Georgia slowly come out of that pattern and emerge as a real person who advocates for herself and those around her. But that’s the end and it’s a long, tedious trip to get there.
The secret between Birdie and her father is far more horrific than that between Georgia and Maisy. It caused two deaths as well as Birdie’s institutionalizations and the endless pain Birdie’s two daughters suffered as the result of having a mother with mental issues. Since this is the mystery that the whole tale revolves around and it came to such an unsatisfactory conclusion, I found myself quite disappointed with this portion of the narrative.
In most of Ms. White’s novels the angst is balanced by the joy of new love but that is not the case here. James and Georgia don’t really have time to build a relationship because Georgia is so busy dealing with the crazy in her family and most of the focus is on that. At the end of the story they start to take tentative steps forward but it happens in the last few pages and it is frustratingly brief. It doesn’t help that James never felt three dimensional to me. We receive snippets of information about his past but he is very much on the outskirts of the central plot. Becky, Maisy’s daughter, suffers from this problem as well. She’s a pivotal character but never a fully developed one.
Two more problems dragged at the narrative. One is a peripheral character being used to preach a message of love and forgiveness which is almost painful given the circumstances of the story. The other is the fact the author doesn’t seem to understand how mental illness is actually treated and how those treatments would have affected Birdie. Suffice it to say medication is a large part of the protocol used currently and most of those pills don’t have benign side effects.
In spite of these significant problems, the book has some terrific aspects as well. The writing is superb, the author managing to be lyrical and poetic in her descriptions yet clear and precise in her prose. The characterization of the three main characters – Birdie, Maisy and Georgia – may be flawed but it is also surprisingly strong. The ladies are very three dimensional and while you might not always like them, you do always understand where they are coming from. I also felt that the story captures actual small-town living superbly. It shows the good, the bad and the downright ugly in equal measures rather than just creating some idyllic village which resembles no place ever inhabited by humans.
In conclusion I would say that Flight Patterns tried to soar a bit too high and wound up missing its planned trajectory. I can’t give it a wholehearted recommendation but neither can I completely condemn the tale. Fans of the author might want to try the library and see for themselves if they find something of value in this rather uneven story.