“She thought for a long time that she might make work that lasted. But the truth was, no one needed art the way they needed food and shelter.” Alice, an artist turned social worker, articulates here one of the key messages of Lynn Steger Strong’s intricate and moving second novel, Flight.
It is a deeply considered book that wears its serious themes lightly. Most pressing among these is the question of family, its power to help, harm, heal, hurt, which plays out in a taut narrative set over a few days in a house in upstate New York as three couples and their children come together for Christmas.
This year there’s an empty chair at the table – that of Helen, the family’s much-loved, formidable matriarch, who died recently of a stroke – and a profound sense of loss permeates the festivities. Helen’s three children, Martin, Henry and Kate, along with their respective partners, Tess, Alice and Josh, are each grieving in their own way. It can be tricky to introduce so many characters at once, but Steger Strong switches nimbly between the couples as they arrive or prepare for the holiday period, establishing their distinct personalities with ease.
Kate, in particular, misses her mother, to the extent that she wants to move into Helen’s home in Florida. Whether her siblings and their spouses will grant this wish – Kate and Josh don’t have the money to buy the others out – gives the narrative tension from the beginning. A subplot involving one of Alice’s social work cases, seven-year-old Maggie and her recovering addict mother, Quinn, gives a layered effect thematically and also adds further tension as things go awry later in the book.
Other plot strands that give a natural momentum include the friction between Kate and her two sisters-in-law; Henry’s obsession with his climate change art project; Alice’s many miscarriages; Tess’s tightly wound, Type-A personality; children struggling with ADHD; and eldest brother Martin’s suspension from his role as a college professor for inappropriate interaction with a student.
If this makes it seem as if Steger Strong is trying to tick various zeitgeist boxes, the book doesn’t read that way at all. Through her subtle depiction of character, these individual plights are keenly felt. Take Martin’s situation with the student: “It was not so specific as attraction, the thing he felt towards her. She was attractive, but she also seemed mostly like a child.”
Or Quinn’s declaration of how she wants her daughter to have a better childhood than she had herself. She tells Alice about bringing Maddie to the Met in New York: “I’d never been to a museum, at least not one like that. I wanted her to have all that stuff inside her… What Quinn doesn’t say is that the whole time, on those trips to the museum, she was also going to the city to buy heroin.”
Or the unpacking of Tess’s abusive childhood, which accounts for her controlling nature and isolation within her own family: “She couldn’t talk to either of her sisters without feeling like they were in some competition in which only one of them would make it out alive.”
In a way, Flight is an ode to in-laws and extended family who, over time and shared experience, often come to mean as much to a person as their family of origin. It’s a story about support networks, the importance of the collective, which is seen in various strains of the narrative.
Stresses and conflicts
Tensions and rivalries also abound. Steger Strong is skilled at showing the many different ways that people look to escape from family, to detach from the everyday stresses and conflicts. Adults hide behind their children, or behind their anxieties for their children. Elsewhere, there are early-morning runs, gingerbread house competitions, wine, cigarette breaks, baking shows, social media, work emails. One character even builds an igloo that nobody wants. “Only 46 more hours,” notes another.
The tone is wise, probing, softly poking fun at life, in a way that is reminiscent of Anne Tyler, that great chronicler of American families. The prose style is similar too: no fireworks, just clear description and the occasional memorable image.
Steger Strong is the author of the novel Hold Still, Want. Her non-fiction and criticism have appeared in the New York Times, New York Magazine, Harper’s Bazaar, the LA Times and the New Republic. She teaches writing at Columbia University. As with many of Tyler’s novels, Steger Strong’s writing doesn’t announce itself, there is no one-line action summary of Flight. Instead the reader comes away with a feeling of lived experience over a long weekend with a bunch of people who annoy and care for each other through the good times and the bad. In short, a quiet but insistent study of character and interconnected relationships that deserves to take flight.