Be sure to read to the end of this review for an interview with one of the author’s research sources—my friend Carla, who’s a real-life flight attendant.
I’ve been a fan of Chris Bohjalian since Midwives was published in 1998. While I may‘ve missed some of his books in the interim, I’m thrilled to have read The Flight Attendant so soon after its release. That I received the ARC prior to release and only just read it is entirely my fault.
Bohjalian creates a story that spans just a few days, but includes multiple continents and plenty of intrigue. The titular flight attendant is Cassie Bowden, who’s been working for the airlines since just after high school. She lives a simple life for the most part. In between flying and binge drinking, she has few lasting relationships. Unless you count the shelter cats she visits regularly, and her sister’s family.
So when Cassie wakes up in Dubai next to the dead body of one of her passengers—and the previous night’s drunken fling—she has no one to turn to. In her mixed up, hungover state Cassie attempts to manage the situation. But all she manages to do is tell lie after lie and thoroughly confuse herself.
Bohjalian effectively walks the fine line between making Cassie likable and portraying her as a disaster. She is indeed both, and very humanly so. For every time I face palmed, there was a moment when Cassie seemed endearing. Faced with a horrible situation, I’d wager that she does no better or worse than many of us would do.
I love to watch a character’s fundamental self undergo a change as a result of events in a novel. The Flight Attendant gave me that in spades. Cassie is affected to her core by the events of the story. No matter how she could’ve changed, there’s no question she’ll never be the same person who landed that day in Dubai.
Before long, Bohjalian gives the reader infinitely more information than poor Cassie has. We learn about the forces of global espionage at play. But the information comes in bits and pieces, with the points of view and timelines shifting unexpectedly. As a result, the story moves like a airplane suddenly flying without an engine. Just when I thought I’d figured out all the twists, the airplane dropped unexpectedly and one more twist was revealed.
This is a strong thriller, with a likably flawed main character. The pace moves forward evenly, and plot twists abound. I’m a fan!
Many thanks to the author, NetGalley, and Doubleday Books for the digital ARC in exchange for this honest review.
Interview with Carla Malstrom, author research source for The Flight Attendant
The author’s wife was my friend Carla’s high school classmate. They connected so she could be a source for his research about the realities of a flight attendant’s life. She was willing to answer a few questions for me. Thanks Carla, for taking time out of your busy schedule to answer my questions.
How long have you been a flight attendant?
I’ve been a flight attendant for 18 years. I graduated from training and was assigned a base in December 1999, just before the turn of the century. It was an interesting time as no one was quite sure what to expect with Y2K. The airline was worried that we might all be afraid to fly on New Year’s Eve into 2000 so they offered a large bonus for flying those hours! As a poorly paid new hire, I was happy to work and earn the premium! And as everyone knows, Y2K arrived with no great catastrophes.
What are your favorite destinations and why?
Paris is my favorite city so I am pleased when I get a Paris trip. (At 18 years, I am VERY junior so I cannot hold trips to most international destinations!) That being said, one of the reasons I became a flight attendant is because I love to travel (Imagine that!) so I am pleased with many of our destinations! Barcelona is wonderful. London is my favorite city to go see plays. Even traveling within the US is great as I have friends and family in many cities. I have visited with so many people over the years thanks to my work schedule!
I used to work with nurses, and was surprised at how many of them lacked simple common sense despite being skilled nurses. Might I be similarly surprised about flight attendants? Or are they, by and large, responsible people? Were any of Cassie’s less admirable behaviors like anyone you’ve flown with?
As a whole, flight attendants are incredibly resourceful and creative problem solvers. We sort of have to be, working in a metal tube 35,000 feet above the earth, far from management and additional resources. I love the fact that I learn new things nearly every day at work. That being said, not everyone has this ability or commitment to do his/her best and since we are a very diverse work group, we do not solve similar issues the same way every day. Consistency of procedures can be a challenge.
As for Cassie, this is difficult. I know there are stereotypes about flight attendants and yes, there is truth to them. Many of my colleagues have laughed and said she is a very believable character. I can’t disagree but I know so many flight attendants that do NOT exhibit any of Cassie’s less admirable traits and would not dream of doing the things Cassie does. My airline has 24,000 flight attendants. It would be impossible to sum us all up into one character!
How closely did the “urban legend” air travel events in the book resemble real events?
Chris did not exaggerate the stories. Strange things (and strange people) happen on airplanes!
Tell me about how it works to be Bohjalian’s research guru.
I went to high school with Chris’s wife so when he was thinking about writing The Flight Attendant, she reached out to me as a possible resource. Since I was already a fan of Chris’s writing, I was happy to participate. We scheduled several phone interviews during which he went through a list of questions he had about being a flight attendant. He had his lead character and plot outlined already so was looking to create an authentic world for her to inhabit.
I would say that one of Chris Bohjalian’s strengths as a writer is his attention to the details of the life and times of his characters. Whether he is writing a modern day thriller or an historic novel set in an earlier century, Chris does extensive research so each novel’s setting is a realistic representation of what truly could be (or could have been at the time). As more questions came up, Chris would email them to me or set up another call.
… the first draft vs. the final draft …
When an early draft was completed (nearly 14 months before publication date), I received a copy in the mail to read through. It was a 2-3 inch stack of 8x11.5 sheets of paper! I couldn’t put it down as I wanted to find out what happened. Whenever I had a question, I put a sticky notes on the page and at some point, we had another phone conversation. (Although I was not asked to read as an “editor,” only as an airline crew member, as an English major, I couldn’t help myself!) Chris was remarkably patient and kind with my “need” to go over anything I put a note on even though he certainly had plenty of professional editing available.
Seven or eight months later a bound paperback galley proof arrived in the mail. Since I had already read the story, it took me a while to reread it. When I did, I was astonished to find that the ending was quite changed! Haha! Different characters took on different roles in Cassie’s life with a different outcome! When I commented on this to Chris, he laughed and said it was not unusual for this to happen. As the story unfolds and is worked on, different possibilities present themselves so even Chris may be surprised by how the final version ends up when compared with the germinating idea!
Is this the most famous you’ve ever felt? If not, what was the other time or times?
Probably. I am definitely not famous nor do I have any aspiration to become known! However, I admit that I am quite tickled to see my name in print and I enjoy showing the acknowledgement page to my friends and coworkers! At least one friend found my name on her own and immediately contacted me to see if, in fact, I was the person named!
Does The Flight Attendant inspire you to share any travel advice with my readers?
Hmm, I’m afraid I might sound preachy as I stress that Cassie’s life is NOT one I condone. Nothing about her travels would be a recommendation except in what NOT to do!
I wholeheartedly recommend traveling and seeing the world as much as one can. Try new things and meet new people certainly, but it is essential to be aware and stay mindful at all times. Basic boring advice from this world traveler! LOL