Tuesday, November 30, 2021

"Flight Risk"

Joy Castro is the award-winning author of the post-Katrina New Orleans literary thrillers Hell or High Water, which received the Nebraska Book Award, and Nearer Home, and the story collection How Winter Began, as well as the memoir The Truth Book and the essay collection Island of Bones, which received the International Latino Book Award. She is also editor of the anthology Family Trouble and served as the guest judge of CRAFT‘s first Creative Nonfiction Award. Her work has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, Senses of Cinema, Salon, Ploughshares, Gulf Coast, Brevity, Afro-Hispanic Review, and elsewhere. A former Writer-in-Residence at Vanderbilt University, she is currently the Willa Cather Professor of English and Ethnic Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Castro applied the Page 69 Test to her new novel, Flight Risk, and reported the following:
From page 69:
When we returned two weeks later [from our honeymoon in Paris]—plumped up by French food and wine and too many trips to Ladurée, thinned down again by long walks through the city and long nights in our suite above the Seine—[my mother-in-law] Helene’s fury had diminished to a simmer, but she was still tight-lipped when we met. I’d robbed her of the showpiece wedding of her only son.

“Give her time,” Jon said. “Let her stew. She’ll get over it.”

But she didn’t. Jon, she rapidly forgave. But I remained a pariah, a thief, and her suspicions of me grew.

Her manners were so impeccable that I, coming from a brusquer world, often failed to sense her hostility. At the society functions she threw, I sometimes felt like a character in a Henry James novel, the naïve and bumbling young American amidst the worldly old-money Europeans with titles and references I couldn’t descry—though I wasn’t hunting a husband, and no one was actually European. I hated those awkward evenings. But Helene was perfectly polite. Strategic, too. To Jon, she said only innocuous things about me or complimented some bland achievement, easy to praise—my career, some art piece, a casserole I’d labored over—so that when I came to him, worried about this or that slight, a double-edged comment, he could say, quite honestly and innocently, “She really likes you, Isabel. She really liked that wine you gave her. Really, sweetheart. You need to relax. It’s all in your head.”

I stopped asking Jon about it, and Helene and I drifted along in an uneasy truce. She’s Jon’s family, I told myself sternly. My family now. And sacrifices are what you make for family. So I brought casseroles. I sat at the Turner family table with Audrey and Sophia and their families at holidays, and I laughed lightly to deflect questions about when we were going to have children of our own. At Christmas and Mother’s Day and her birthday, I brought Helene exquisite and tasteful little gifts. But I began to make excuses not to see her...
To an extent, the page 69 test works very well on Flight Risk, because it captures the class-based family tensions between Isabel, the protagonist, and her mother-in-law Helene, a wealthy, old-money Chicago socialite who doesn't think Isabel's good enough for her son. The novel also chronicles Isabel's spiral into paranoia due to the marital tensions, and we begin to see that here, when Jon defends his mother's actions, making Isabel doubt her own interpretations. (For me, anytime a man tells his wife, "It's all in your head" in fiction or film, a serious gaslight alarm starts flashing.)

This page also raises the question of children, which connects to the book's larger themes, because it explores the issue of making fertility choices in an era of climate crisis. This selection also shows us how Isabel, though she's Latina from a background of poverty, thinks through the lens of literature she's read, as when she mentions Henry James. Flight Risk is, in a way, akin to James's The Portrait of a Lady, but updated for the 21st century, with a quite different set of moral challenges. Her ways of seeing have been sculpted by her education, and this has distorted her ability to get at the truth of her own feelings and experience.

Ways in which this page 69 is less representative include the fact that it's very interior and ruminative; there's little action. It largely tells rather than shows. Yet much of Flight Risk is very active, taking place outdoors or in conversation (or conflict) with other people. In Chicago, Isabel and Jon converse at dinner parties and galas, and Isabel talks on the phone to the prison warden, who informs her that her mother has died while incarcerated, and to her bitter Aunt Della, who tries to discourage her from returning home. But Isabel then flies back to West Virginia alone, drives deep into the mountains, and reencounters multiple people from her past. She treks alone through a forest, breaks into a locked house, and more. So in that sense, this page is unusually contemplative and reflective. For most of the book, by contrast, Isabel really is in flight. She really is at risk.
Visit Joy Castro’s website and Twitter perch.

Q&A with Joy Castro.

My Book, The Movie: Flight Risk.

--Marshal Zeringue