Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Review: In Hovering Flight



The characters in Joyce Hinnefeld’s first novel, In Hovering Flight, fall into two teams that could be called “the Artists” and “the Suits.” The Artists include the heroine, Addie Sturmer Kavanagh, an avid birder, artist, and environmental activist; her husband Tom, a literature-loving ornithology professor; their daughter Scarlet, a poet; Addie’s two best friends; and various supporters, fans, and hangers-on. The Suits include Addie’s archenemy, a big-shot land developer; corporations; Republican Senators; publishers; college administrators; and the like.

All these characters come into play, directly or through recollection, as Addie’s loved ones gather to mourn her recent death and consider her dying wishes, some of which are unorthodox or even illegal.

Hinnefeld’s writing is elegant and she tells an emotionally complex, multi-layered tale. The problem is that the Artists are all good and the Suits are all bad. Sure, there is some variation and even tension among the Artists themselves. There is the acknowledgement that Addie’s “moral superiority” puts off her loved ones; that some of her ardor may stem from untreated depression rather than healthy concern; and that her fellow activists may be too extreme. But the Artists are fundamentally right in their interests and outlook. The Suits (none fleshed out as characters) range from evil fiends to buffoons. There is absolutely no question about which team we are expected to root for.

Just as the issues are clear to Hinnefeld, team membership is as well. There is no crossover, except as object lessons. For example, the scientific side of Tom’s profession and character is shown in poor contrast to Tom as a writer, musician, and lover of bird songs. Likewise, although Scarlet’s first love Bobby suffers adolescent tragedy, it is his involvement with corporate America that brings him close to death – both slowly with alcohol and quickly with an office in the World Trade Center on 9/11. Bobby is redeemed only when he abandons the world of the Suits and returns to the Artists’ fold.

Hinnefeld means well, that is clear. In Hovering Flight is an earnest novel dealing with heavy subjects (cancer, death, environmental degradation, art, infidelity, autism, motherhood, and suicide, for instance). But Hinnefeld offers no sugar to help the medicine go down. The book is devoid of any humor: there are no jokes, quips, or even wry observations. The book takes itself too seriously and comes across as the same sort of smug, self-righteous lecture Addie herself was wont to give.

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