The Elastic Nature of a Family in “Flight”
Lynn Steger Strong’s latest novel proves that love is a family’s greatest resource.
I suddenly realized that I wrote a quiet novel about family,” says Lynn Steger Strong, author of the new novel Flight, out this month from HarperCollins. Yet each of Strong’s novels is, in some way, about family. Her first, Hold Still, followed the story of a mother and daughter repairing their bond after a tragedy. Her second, Want, was fueled by rage and followed a couple’s struggle to raise children in Brooklyn after filing for bankruptcy. Want is narrated by its main character and centers on her personal experience. Perhaps what’s different about Flight, Strong’s third book, is that it takes a broader view, examining the dynamics among members of an extended family. “The project of the book was the organism, the group, and not the individual,” says Strong.
Flight takes place at Christmastime in a family that has just lost its matriarch, Helen. Her three children and their spouses, with Helen’s grandchildren, convene on one of the couple’s homes in upstate New York, where the world is frozen over, to discuss what to do with Helen’s house down in Florida, their childhood home.
Strong’s omniscient narration leads us through each person’s experience of the reunion. She says writing, for her, is a way to explore the elasticity of language. “Everybody in this book inhabits the word ‘family’ in very different ways,” she says. For Tess, Helen’s daughter-in-law, “family is scary and painful.” Helen’s children, Henry, Martin, and Kate, adored their mother but now find them-selves grieving her in different ways. Setting the book during the holidays “was a useful way to ask this group of people to recalibrate their relationship to this word.”
Strong wanted to celebrate the joys of parenting as well as confront its complications in an age of climate change, growing awareness of neurodivergence, and economic struggle. “Parenting is this process of making peace with a complete loss of control,” she says. “In terms of wanting to do it best, there’s never a clear path. It also never stops being profoundly enriching.” The parents in Flight may contrast one another in their approaches to discipline, medication, diet, or education, but what emerges is not a hierarchy of best practices for parents but rather a spectrum of ways to love your children. “You have the extraordinary privilege of loving them on the exact terms that they are,” says Strong. In the book, two of Helen’s grandchildren are neurodivergent, but only one set of parents has chosen to medicate their child, despite fearing the slippery slope of overmedication; the other can’t afford to. One parent never lets her children go to bed without bathing.
Quinn is a young single mother raising her daughter Maddie under state supervision after an accidental overdose. Her social worker is Alice, the wife of Henry; their upstate house serves as the book’s setting. Unable to have biological children, Alice grows abnormally invested in Maddie. “Everything I write is to some extent about caretaking,” says Strong. “I’m always interested in the boundaries and borders that we establish, or fail to establish, in relationships that aren’t clear.” Quinn was a teenage mother who ran away from her own complicated family to keep custody of her daughter. She cannot afford childcare. “Quinn is absolutely the product of some deeply broken systems, but she’s also an acting, thinking human,” says Strong. “I need her humanity to mean as much to you as everybody else’s.” Quinn isn’t a victim; she has agency and makes her own choices. Just like the reader’s, some of them are better than others. “The book is interested in why and how we make choices, and how we live inside of those choices,” says Strong.
“All of these characters, maybe most of all Alice and Quinn, came from circling the word ‘shame,’” says Strong. Two other characters she alludes to are Kate and Josh, who lived on money from Josh’s family until he lost it all on bad investments. With two children, they’re hoping to move into Helen’s house, Kate’s childhood home in Florida, if only they can convince the family to let them. Tess thinks they don’t deserve it. Henry, an artist who makes work about climate change, would rather demolish Helen’s house—in need of repairs and destined to be underwater soon anyway—and donate her land to the state wildlife agency. “I think the fight over Helen’s house to some extent is meant to be a little bit absurd,” says Strong. “I look around at other parents, and everyone is so deeply mired in a sense of a future that doesn’t exist anymore,” due to the cascading effects of climate change, “but they can’t get out of it.” She relates to this reality-blindness herself. So what if Helen’s house will be gone by the time the kids grow up? Like Kate and Josh, “I want my kids to have a beautiful childhood,” she says.
Flight is an easy book to settle into; the reader wants to be a part of this family, even with its challenges. Jealousy, blame, grief, and all the myriad ways that children can think of to scare their parents intervene on this family reunion. Yet, they still decorate the Christmas tree and share memories of Helen. They band together when a child goes missing. “It was really important to me that each of these characters drive me a little bit nuts at the beginning,” Strong says, “and that I find a way to love them and find value in their point of view, by the end.” Patience and compassion for people real and fictional are muscles that parenting has helped her exercise, she says: “Becoming a parent and loving my children has only enriched and strengthened my work.” It’s shown her a greater capacity for love, even as the material circumstances of her life as an artist mean money is sometimes lean. Love is the most important resource for any family to have, and the family in Flight has plenty of it. It comes through every page.
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