April Henry, 2002, 308 p.
Learning to Fly is an average thriller with a few shining moments interspersed here and there. Here’s the plot: Free Meeker, the pregnant nineteen year old protagonist, is driving to Portland, Oregon with a hitchhiker (Lydia) whom she picked up along the way. They are involved in a horrific fifty-two vehicle accident caused by a dust storm, and Lydia is killed. Free gets away from her car a few seconds before it explodes and wanders the crash scene where she meets Jamie, a young drug dealer who has been paralyzed by the accident. He directs her to his car where she grabs his gym bag containing ¾ of a million dollars. When she takes the bag to the hospital to give to Jamie, she is told that he has died. Free decides to keep the money. Later on, she finds out that she’s been pronounced dead at the scene. Nobody knew that Lydia was with her, so Free decides to assume Lydia’s identity.
After that, it’s downhill all the way, with Jamie’s boss tracking her down to try to get the drug money back and Lydia’s extremely abusive meth-head husband also chasing her (under the mistaken impression that she is Lydia) so that he can take her home to cook-n-clean and be his whipping gal once again. The smaller collision at the end of the novel between these three characters is as powerful in its own way as the huge accident at the beginning.
So, I liked the beginning and the end—it was the middle I had trouble with. It just didn’t do it for me. For one thing, it seemed implausible that Free decided to assume Lydia’s identity. Sure, she was pregnant and unmarried and she was raised by hippy-dippy parents who didn’t seem to care about her very much, but is that a good enough reason to completely become someone else? Who we are is the most important thing about us. I would never give up my identity unless it were a matter of life and death. And speaking of life, Free didn’t seem to be that lively at all. Maybe that’s why she wanted to change herself so completely. Maybe she’d be less dull and pedestrian if she became Lydia.
Because of my diminishing interest in Free’s predicament, I found my mind wandering during much of Learning to Fly. Once it was finished, I knew I’d have to write down my impressions immediately or I’d end up forgetting the novel completely. It belongs in the forgettable category.
Oh, and one more thing: the title should be Learning to Lie. That’s what Free was doing. She wasn’t really evolving at all, other than becoming another unwed mommy statistic. At the very end of the novel, she gives birth, and it’s beautiful. Oh joy of joys!