Sylvie Serfer Woodruff has devoted herself to being the ideal political wife. The first night they got together in college, Richard Woodruff informed her that he wanted to someday be President of the United States. From that moment on, their lives have adhered to a carefully orchestrated trajectory, beginning with law school and culminating with Richard’s current status as the senior senator from New York. Throughout a thirty-two year marriage, Sylvia has dutifully dieted in order to maintain her weight, been conservatively and impeccably coiffed, made dreaded public speaking engagements, and maintained a New York apartment more perfectly styled for entertaining than raising their two daughters, Diana and Lizzie. As Sylvie puts it, her only real job has been staying twenty pounds thinner than she was in law school. Through it all, she has managed to remain in love with and faithful to Richard.
Ironically, Sylvie’s mother, the Honorable Selma Serfer, the former chief judge of New York, graduated first in her class from Yale Law School — a class that included a total of only seven women. Selma has never made any secret of her disappointment that Sylvia opted to make a career out of supporting her husband’s political ambitions, rather than putting her own degrees from Barnard and Yale to good use.
En route from a public appearance, Sylvie receives a call from her best friend, Ceil, that changes her life. Ceil informs Sylvia that at that very moment, is CNN is reporting that Richard not only had an affair with a legislative aide, but also secured a job for her in the Washington, D.C. branch of his former law firm.
They appear on newscasts, after which their wardrobe choices, hair, makeup, and every movement — how many times did the camera catch a grimace or flinch of discomfort or revulsion? — are dissected by the various commentators and their guest body language experts. One wonders how they could bear to stand before the cameras and question-shouting reporters. Since Hillary Clinton opted to stand by her cheating, lying man, a slew of political wives have faced the nation alongside their husbands as they either confessed to various betrayals and begged their constituents’ understanding and forgiveness, or denied engaging in scandalous affairs and liaisons with prostitutes, members of their staffs or even strangers in the men’s room at the Minneapolis airport.
Best-selling author Jennifer Weiner found herself asking, “How, in an age of feminism, when, instead of marrying a powerful man you could be powerful yourself, could these wives choose to stand by their disgraced spouses . . .?” Her fascination with the spectacle inspired her to pen Fly Away Home.
Sometimes all you can do is fly away home . . .
Weiner describes the book as her attempt to answer the questions we have all asked ourselves while watching women like Silda Spitzer or Dina Matos McGreevey publicly endure the humiliation of being betrayed by their husbands’ scandalous indiscretions: What kind of woman would marry a politician and choose to stand by him under such circumstances? What could her reasons be?
Fly Away Home is an exploration of choices and consequences, examined through the life of a woman who literally sacrificed her own education, career, and, indeed, her very identity when she entered into partnership with a man driven toward a singular goal. Sylvie practiced law for only two years before choosing to focus all of her energy on Richard’s political ambition. Their life has been a carefully choreographed, highly controlled series of public appearances, speeches, and photo opportunities. Most of the control over how and where she spends her days lies beyond Sylvie’s grasp.
The choices parents make impact the lives of their children in profound ways, of course. Diana, their oldest daughter, is enjoying a successful career as an emergency room physician. She is married to Gary and they have one son, Milo, as well as a lovely home. Diana stays in shape by jogging regularly, and is very cautious about Milo’s diet, exposure to television programs and movies, etc. In many ways, she is, at least on the surface, the antithesis of her mother: A career-oriented control freak married to a weak and passive man that she has never really loved. Diana settled for security and predictability when she married Gary. And in response, she is making choices that will have a destructive impact upon her and her family.
Meanwhile, Lizzie, Sylvie and Richard’s younger daughter, has just completed a stint in a Minnesota rehab facility. She is living with Diana and Gary, serving as Milo’s nanny for the summer. The arrangement was foisted upon her, as well as Diana and Gary, by Sylvie and Richard in order to give Lizzie a place to stay until her job as a photographer’s assistant begins in the fall. It is also a means by which Diana can keep an eye on Lizzie to be sure that she is not using drugs. Lizzie has always felt like an outsider — the only underachiever in an accomplished family. She is keenly aware that her life has been out of control, but she is floundering, unable to take charge of her own destiny.
Fly Away Home is refreshing because it is unique. The subject matter has not been tackled from the vantage point of the political wife before.
Sylvie is forced to face one inescapable, universal truth: When you give yourself over completely to another person and that person’s dreams, and that person betrays you, you are left with nothing. Not even yourself. From the moment Sylvie learns of Richard’s duplicitous behavior, she gradually comes to the realization that her life as she knew it is over. Weiner deftly and believably leads the reader through Sylvie’s emotional awakening and break down, expertly evoking a lump in the throat and emptiness in the pit of the stomach right along with Sylvie. For instance, Sylvie demands that her driver pull into a roadside rest stop. There, she stands glued to a television screen upon which the story about her husband’s infidelity is splayed. The scene makes for excruciating — but delicious — reading. Sylvie’s emotions are raw, her reaction horrifically intense, disbelieving, but authentically empathetic. Sylvie is broken.
The same is true of the scene in which Sylvie arrives back at their New York apartment where Richard is watching the newscasts in his study with his assistant. Richard is also broken, but for different reasons. Their confrontation is stunningly, heartbreakingly realistic. Weiner’s pacing and dialogue are pitch-perfect. Richard and Sylvie’s marriage is broken. Their family is broken.
But still there is the obligatory press conference. Sylvie’s maternal instincts drive her to agree to appear with Richard solely to protect her daughters, whom she refuses to have paraded before the camera as props in Richard’s attempt to salvage his senatorial career. As soon as the press conference ends, however, Sylvie exits, escaping to her family’s Connecticut beach house where she spent summers as a child. There she begins the process of evaluating the choices she made long ago, sorting out the consequences of those choices, and piecing together her future.
The revelation of Richard’s affair distinctly impacts Diana and Lizzie, as well, and their parents’ separation causes them to examine the choices they have made over the years in reaction to the family dynamic with which they were raised. Diana’s controlled life implodes and veers off track, surprising no one more than her. She realizes that the veneer of success and happiness she constructed was nothing more than that. And if she wants to find real happiness for herself and her child, she has to come to terms with the impact that her upbringing and relationship with her parents had on the way she has structured her life.
As for Lizzie, she has to make critical choices about her future, some of which take her by surprise. A gifted photographer, one her rehab counselors suggests that she has made a habit of using her camera as a shield, hiding behind it rather than being part of the scenes she films. “If you’re taking pictures, it takes you out of the story . . . it turns you into an observer instead of a participant.” Lizzie has to decide if she has the courage to stop engaging in self-destructive behavior and take a chance at being happy by stepping out from behind the lens to participate in her own life, as well as the lives of her family. As Weiner puts it, Lizzie, along with her mother and sister, has to decide if she is ready to really be in her own life.
Weiner carefully leads the reader through the details of Sylvie’s self-imposed exile where, day by day, little by little, she reinvents herself while she contemplates whether her marriage to Richard can survive. Abandoning her conservative suits, hair dye, and perpetual diet, Sylvie experiments with simply being Sylvie. Weiner is wise not to turn Sylvie into a bitter, angry woman scorned. Rather, Weiner recognizes that a marriage that has endured for thirty-two years may be, from the perspective of its partners, worth salvaging despite an adulterous affair. Accordingly, the complex, often conflicting emotions Sylvie experiences ring true — her memories of her life with Richard run the gamut from sweet and heart-warming to devastatingly heart-breaking.
Eventually, both girls end up at the beach house with Sylvie who, by then, is ready to take advantage of the second chance she has been given to mother her daughters. The three women have never been particularly close. Along with her introspective evaluation of her marriage, Sylvie gradually develops an understanding of the effect that her total and unwavering devotion to being Richard’s helpmate had upon the lives of her daughters and comes to see that the choices they made were, in part, fueled by the environment in which she and Richard raised them. Sylvie acknowledges that she devoted herself completely to taking care of Richard and his needs, “a job that left little room for taking care of anything else . . . sometimes not even her daughters.” Weiner wisely allows Sylvie to experience some maternal guilt about the trade-offs she made as her children were growing up, but not wallow for too long or too deeply in regret. Slowly, the mother and daughters begin to understand, forgive, and appreciate each other.
Sylvie’s mother, Selma, serves as a proverbial Greek chorus, giving voice to readers’ thoughts and reactions. A feminist who fought to achieve her career goals at a time when the legal profession was not readily open to women, she cannot fathom why Sylvie chose to subjugate her own ambition in favor of Richard’s, whom she refers to as a “crotch.” She is frequently hilarious, as when, for instance, she advises Sylvie not to wear teal should she be interviewed on 60 Minutes. “Wear red,” Selma advises. “Red says you’re strong and you’re not going to take it. And you’re not. Going to take it. Are you?” It is Selma who reminds Sylvie, “In Chinese, the word for crisis is the same word as opportunity.”
Weiner notes that “a woman who loses everything is a fascinating woman to write about.” In Weiner’s hands, that woman is also the basis for a fascinating and compelling in-depth character study. Each of the female characters is fully developed, vividly described. Their conversations are natural, each having her own unique voice, thus demonstrating Weiner’s keen insight into women’s psyches — how they think, feel, and relate to each other.
Sylvie’s reinvention, necessitated by the situation into which she is suddenly thrust, is believably absorbing. Every reader who has at some point found him/herself at a crossroads will understand the enormity of the options available to Sylvie, which Weiner reveals with both wit and compassion. Her writer’s touch is surprisingly light, allowing material that could, in a less skilled author’s hands, be dark and maudlin, to flow as liltingly and soothingly as the tides on the Connecticut shore.
When Sylvie takes her leave from Richard, Weiner signals that Sylvie’s strength will allow her to survive the public relations and emotional tsunami that has just decimated her life as she has known it up to that point. Weiner’s strength lies in her ability to keep the reader interested in learning exactly what Sylvie’s life will be like after she sorts through the wreckage of her marriage. And, of course, whether or not, by the time the last page is turned, Sylvie and Richard will still have a marriage.
Weiner rightly believes that “women never get tired of reading about funny, familiar, relatable characters trying to make sense of their lives.” Fortunately, she loves writing about them. Fly Away Home is yet another excellent summer read, perfect for an afternoon at the beach or in your own backyard. Regardless of where you read it, make sure you set aside plenty of time because once you pick it up, you won’t be putting it back down until you reach the very last page.