The Flight Attendant, by Chris Bohjalian [Review]

“I understand how somebody would think that this would make a great movie – if you fix all the problems with the novel.”

This was a disappointing read, and only partly because of the hype over the book (which is now an HBOMax mini-series). The story has a great beginning and an ending full of pretzel twists and “Wait – What?” reveals (that I won’t spoil). Throw in a lot of sex and alcohol, a Russian assassin, opulent settings, and some international intrigue, and I understand how somebody would think that this would make a great movie – if you fix all the problems with the novel.

The story, and ninety percent of the narration, centers on Cassie, a veteran flight attendant in her late thirties (although her exact age is subject to contradictory references). Single, living beyond her means in Manhattan, addicted to sex and partying, and an alcoholic subject to black-outs, Cassie wakes up in a 5-star hotel suite in Dubai next to a man she hooked up with on the flight from New York. He’s dead, with his throat slashed and blood everywhere. Cassie remembers the prior night’s sex and heavy drinking, and the brief appearance of a woman named Miranda, who came and went (without engaging in a threesome) – but she has no memory of her man dying. She’s not certain she didn’t kill him, but she doubts it. She’s now running late to catch her return flight, so she flees rather than alerting security. Great start.

Unfortunately, the next 300 pages are frustratingly dull and useless. We never really get to know Cassie or care about her. This is the author’s greatest failing. Cassie is never a sympathetic character, and there are no other important characters in the story. We watch as Cassie makes a series of terrible decisions, many of which cause her to be more of a suspect, even though we know (the author tells us right away, so it’s not a spoiler) that Cassie didn’t kill the guy. There are short chapters from the perspective of the killer, although we don’t really get to know that character much, either. The author wants the story to be a version of The Tell Tale Heart as Cassie sinks further and further in to feelings of guilt, regret, and fear. The problem is that we know she’s not guilty, and the Poe short story his quick and to the point, while this narrative drags on and on while we wait desperately for something important to happen.

Then, as the remaining pages in the book dwindle, everything happens at once. The climax comes with lightning speed as we learn several new, key facts (some conveniently provided in a rather implausible way), get several out-of-the-blue reveals that we could never have guessed (because there were no earlier clues), and there is suddenly all the action than was missing from the rest of the book. This is followed by a head-scratching epilogue that was unnecessary and which seems to be somebody’s idea of needing to make the reader feel better about Cassie, which was contrary to the whole point of the story.

The writing here is fine, but nothing special. The editing is good, except for several obvious continuity problems that should have been caught by a decent editor/proofreader. (As an example, one moment, Cassie is nearly done downing a gin and tonic. In the next paragraph, she’s remembering how good that first shot of tequila tasted and she’s almost finished with her margarita.) The story happens mostly inside Cassie’s head, which makes for long stretches of narration about her perceptions, feelings, anxieties, etc. There’s a lot of time spent by Cassie and other characters speculating about what might have happened and what might happen next, which drags down the pace and doesn’t contribute much to the story. This book would have been better if it was 40,000 words shorter.

In the end, the wild finish and the great set-up make the story interesting, but you’d be better off leading the first and last chapters and letting your own imagination fill in everything else. You’d likely come up with a better middle than the story as written.

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