In 1947, photographer and war correspondent Janey Everett arrives at a remote surfing village on the Hawaiian island of Kauai to research a planned biography of forgotten aviation pioneer Sam Mallory, who joined the loyalist forces in the Spanish Civil War and never returned. Obsessed with Sam’s fate, Janey has tracked down Irene Lindquist, the owner of a local island-hopping airline, whom she believes might actually be the legendary Irene Foster, Mallory’s one time student and flying partner. Foster’s disappearance during a round-the-world flight in 1937 remains one of the world’s greatest unsolved mysteries.
At first, the flinty Mrs. Lindquist denies any connection to Foster. But Janey informs her that the wreck of Sam Mallory’s airplane has recently been discovered in a Spanish desert, and piece by piece, the details of Foster’s extraordinary life emerge: from the beginnings of her flying career in Southern California, to her complicated, passionate relationship with Mallory, to the collapse of her marriage to her aggressive career manager, the publishing scion George Morrow.
As Irene spins her tale to its searing conclusion, Janey’s past gathers its own power. The duel between the two women takes a heartstopping turn. To whom does Mallory rightfully belong? Can we ever come to terms with the loss of those we love, and the lives we might have lived?
Shannon and Lisa both read Her Last Flight, and are here to share their thoughts on the novel.
Lisa: I know you’ve read some of Ms. Williams’ work before, and this isn’t the first time she’s visited America during World War II. What did you think of the historical setting this time out?
Shannon: Beatriz Williams has been hit or miss for me in the past, but I think she did a great job with this book, both in terms of plot and historical setting. She brought Hawaii to life in such vivid detail. I’ve never been there in person, but reading this really was the next best thing. What did you think?
Lisa: I really liked the setting; she captured both Hawaii and the feeling of Paris and Spain mid-World War II.
Lisa: There are a lot of clear parallels between Irene’s disappearance and Amelia Earhart’s, and her character reminded me of Earhart’s as well, right down to the domineering publishing exec husband. Sam, too, puts a person in mind of Charles Lindbergh. Did you feel that their real life presence overshadowed Irene and Sam in the book?
Shannon: I did get the impression they were intended as a sort of tribute to Lindbergh and Earhart, but I didn’t think the fictional characters were overshadowed by the similarities to those who really existed, and the author was able to make everyone, especially Irene, feel authentic in their own right. If you’re a history buff with a lot of knowledge of early aviation history, you might have a slightly different take though.
Lisa: Yes, Irene feels like a character in her own right, fully rounded and realistic. Speaking of, She’s a flinty character and I found her a lot more compelling than Sam.
Shannon: I ended up loving Irene. At first, I was put off by her extremely guarded nature, but as the story unfolded and I got to know her better, she blossomed into someone I greatly admired. Were you able to relate to her in spite of her apparent coldness?
Lisa: Definitely; she was a beautifully appealing woman, with all of her remoteness and guardedness. Her toughness shone through, and her caring for the children and Olle, and – eventually – Janey. But I had a hard time bonding with Sam, whose selfishness was repellent to me. He needed treatment for his PTSD, but the way his outwardly loving yet ultimately selfish reaction to everyone in his life contrasted with the warmth he had for Irene did intrigue me.
Shannon: Sam was hard for me, too. He endured a lot of trauma, and a part of me really wanted to empathize with him, but his actions made that difficult at times. He wasn’t very good at thinking of others, even those he claimed to love, so I had a bit of trouble understanding what drew Irene to him.
Lisa: I think ultimately she loved the adventurer in him – and they did truly care for one another. The problem is that they seemingly loved each other to the exclusion of all others, until even that wasn’t enough for Sam. Of all of the characters in the book, I actually found the initially cold, unaffectionate Janey to be the most interesting. Self-made in every way, she strikes up an interesting friendship with Irene. Her connection to Leo as perhaps a bit too convenient, and I thought her tendency towards a fatalist suicide drive at every disaster – just like Sam’s – a bit much.
Shannon: I didn’t like Janey as much as you did. I don’t have a ton of patience for melodrama, and some of her thought processes felt exaggerated and often unnecessary. Still, I did enjoy watching her unravel the secrets of Sam and Irene’s past, and I think she would have been far less effective in that capacity if she had operated on a more even keel. So, despite a real aversion to some of her behaviors, I think she plays a very necessary part in the story as a whole
Lisa: Yeah, I think the extremity and fatalism in her sometimes felt too convenient, sometimes a bit much. This is a book about the power of memory – and the right of a person to privacy. Whose side of the battle are you on – Irene’s or Janey’s? And did you feel like Sam’s story was one worth telling?
Shannon: I think you nailed this novel’s themes perfectly. Memory is important, especially when we’re talking about the memories of those who have shaped our histories. Williams tackles some difficult questions here, and although I respect the right of the media to share news with the world, I think I’m more sympathetic to Irene’s side of things. She wanted to live her life out of the public eye, and Janey’s determination to share Sam’s story made it hard for her to do that. Her privacy didn’t seem to matter much to Janey in the grand scheme of things, and that troubled me as I read.
Lisa: What did you think of Sam and Irene’s romance? Was it swoonworthy for you?
Shannon: Parts of their romance were quite lovely, but other aspects of their relationship didn’t make a lot of sense to me. I understood Irene’s admiration for Sam as a pilot, but I didn’t always think he was the best romantic partner for her. He seemed to love her as much as it was possible for him to love another person, but his main priority was himself, and that’s not very romantic. If readers go into Her Last Flight looking for a relatable romance, I fear they’ll be disappointed.
Lisa: The book is definitely historical fiction as opposed to historical romance. There’s an interesting sub-theme revolving around self-sacrifice in the book that ought to be peeled apart. Irene sacrifices many things for Sam, but to her it’s not a real sacrifice – she hated what she was doing when she made those choices. Sam, meanwhile, is self-sacrificing in a different way – because of his suicide drive, which he tries to cloak in a false shield of adventure and daring and nobility which he tries to reject – trying to rescue children from war-torn Spain is just him trying to kill himself. One sacrifice he makes in particular is rather unforgivable. And what of the steady, dependable Olle?
Shannon: I loved Olle’s steadiness. So often, the flamboyant, daring risk-takers get all the glory, so I really appreciated the solidity Olle brought to the story. It was rewarding to see a genuinely nice and caring person being celebrated, even if it was only as a supporting character rather than a lead. And, in terms of the whole sacrifice theme, I think sacrifice feels more valid when it’s done willingly and unselfishly. Neither Sam or Irene managed this very well, since they each had their own reasons for their so-called sacrifices. Some were valid, of course, but Sam often made his feel more performative than genuine.
Lisa: *nods* And how about Janey’s relationship with Leo?
Shannon: I would have enjoyed that a bit more if it hadn’t felt so contrived. Still, it served as a nice balance to the tumult of Irene’s deep love for the erratic Sam.
Lisa: I agree; in fact, I almost thought Leo deserved better than Janey.
Lisa: Now, we won’t go into it and spoil it for readers, but that was quite a surprising fourth-act twist. What did you think of it?
Shannon: I was utterly shocked by it. Nothing in the story prepared me for what happened, and I love that Ms. Williams was able to take me so thoroughly by surprise without making things feel forced or out of the realm of possibility.
Lisa: The strength of that twist – which ultimately works better than it ought to – helped boost my grade up a bit. I’m going with a B+ – compelling, well-written, fascinating, memorable characters and genuinely surprising plot twists, but I feel like it had one shock twist too many, and by the end of the book I truly disliked Sam and his effect on Janey and Irene’s lives.
Shannon: I’m also going with a B+. I would have graded it a bit higher if I had related to Janey a bit better and if Irene’s love for Sam hadn’t felt like such an anomaly. I enjoyed the bits of aviation history woven into the story, and, as I said above, the setting was incredibly well-rendered.
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