October 04, 2016

Crossing the Horizon - Laurie Notaro

Gallery Books, October 4, 2016.

Four Stars

In the 1920s, the field of aviation was exploding with new innovations, and many pilots joined the race to be first to fly across the Atlantic. In Notaro’s new novel, Crossing the Horizon, the focus is on three aviatrixes who compete to be the first female to make the flight, following Charles Lindbergh’s successful attempt. The women are very different – Elsie Mackay, daughter of a British Earl, who grew up in a life of wealth and privilege; Mabel Boll, a glamorous American society girl with a rich South American husband; and Ruth Elder, a beauty pageant contestant turned actress who uses her pageant winnings to pay for flying lessons. The novel is based on the lives of these three real women, who were eclipsed in fame by Amelia Earhart and Beryl Markham.

These three women were very different, almost to the point of cliché, yet here their voices all sound similar and indistinct. The novel is meticulously researched and follows the historical record, but it doesn’t manage to fully come to life. These women led incredible lives, and their accomplishments are showcased here, but they didn’t feel real in the same way that Markham did in Paula McLain’s recent novel, Circling the Sun.

The novel started out slowly, but it did pick up when the women began to embark on their aviation adventures – their achievements showed that women could be equally as capable at men even in this dangerous arena, and at a time when they had only just been given the right to vote. It is amazing to witness what these women were able to accomplish, in spite of being oppressed in other areas of their lives – perhaps that is why they were so determined to succeed and be free in the world of aviation. It was interesting to see how their relationships with men were affected by their ambitions – each of the women basically lived separately from their husbands in order to pursue their dreams.

The text of the novel is supplemented by historical photographs of the Mackay, Boll and Elder, as well as letters and newspaper articles. These materials did help bring the women to life, although I still wished for more depth of character – I never felt like I truly understood the women and their motivations on a deeper level. This was especially true for Boll, who became a caricature of a spoiled, whiny rich girl. It often seemed like she was just there for easy laughs, and I felt that she was treated frivolously. All three were strong, independent women, but they often came across here as shallow and silly girls.

Regardless of my issues with the novel, it is always exciting to read a historical novel about women that have not really been explored before in fiction. These three women challenged female norms and opposed a society that denied women an equal opportunity for adventure and success. They didn’t all cross the horizon, but they were able to explore their dreams of flight in new and exciting ways.

I received this novel from Gallery Books/Simon & Schuster in exchange for an honest review.

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