Sylvie Serfer Woodruff — respected politician’s wife; mother of two; watcher of weight — knows she’s become a walking prop when news of her husband’s infidelity reaches the national news. Senator Richard Woodruff had a liason with a woman who could be his daughter, true, and Sylvie takes the news as well as could be expected — which means, in this case, that she retreats inward.
Her life, Sylvie soon realizes, has been reduced to organizing Richard’s life. He’s a grown man who expects his wife to stand in line at a hotel breakfast bar to gather his eggs and toast. Sylvie tends to Richard’s needs as one would look after a child — maybe in a way she didn’t look after her own. Seeking asylum for the chaos that has taken over her marriage, sustained for more than three decades, Sylvie escapes to Connecticut, where she begins to clean and restore the Serfer family’s beach house.
Diana and Lizzie, the Woodruff sisters, are living opposite lives when news of the scandal breaks. Married with a young son, Diana is a doctor trapped in a loveless marriage — and seeking comfort where she can. Lizzie, a recovering addict, is struggling to renew her passion for something she once cherished: photography. The summer takes Lizzie to her sister’s home in Washington, D.C., where she looks after Milo, Diana’s son . . . until the secrets in Diana’s home threaten to level the place. And getting away from it all seems like the next logical step.
Jennifer Weiner’s Fly Away Home is a look at a political family that could be yours, or mine — and that’s what I loved about it. Beyond being the daughters of a powerful politician, Diana and Lizzie — who often feel like the novel’s real focus — were multi-dimensional characters. Sylvie, too, felt like a friend — a woman with whom I could relate, and a woman I would have been happy to know.
Whether we’re talking John Edwards or Bill Clinton, Larry Craig or “The Good Wife,” our news — and popular culture — are rife with the sexual indiscretions of those in power. It’s amazing how one act can shatter so many lives and threaten to bring down whole political dynasties. Richard Woodruff is fictional, sure, but he could just as easily be an Eliot Spitzer. As a reader, Richard’s troubles were an all-too-familiar trope; basically, I felt like I’d heard this all before. As such, I found myself skimming through the opening — just a little, just a little! — and focusing more on Sylvie’s reaction to everything, which was much more interesting to me.
Yes, the Woodruff women are the novel’s real focus: who they are, how they became that way. I loved that Sylvie was the daughter of Selma Serfer, a hard-nosed, fast-talking judge, and that Selma didn’t hesitate to question the way Sylvie was living her life. More than anything, the book felt like the renaissance of Sylvie Serfer — a way of rising from the robotic depths of her life.
Diana and Lizzie were quite complicated, too. Of all the characters, I fell right in step with Lizzie — a 24-year-old woman in recovery, the spoiled youngest child accustomed to humiliating her family as she stood in the shadows of big sister Diana. It felt a bit cliched to have the girls fit such roles, I guess, but it didn’t bother me — mostly because I was moving through the plot so quickly. Learning about the deterioriation of Diana’s marriage was sad but interesting, and I loved the parallel between the wrongs she’d committed and her father’s own bad decisions. It added a totally different dimension to the story.
Weiner took on a very heavy subject — and a well-worn one — and still produced a fascinating, memorable book. I would have loved to know more about Jeff, Lizzie’s love interest, and Milo, Diana’s son, but these are minor quibbles — especially in light of how much I loved the dynamics between Sylvie and her mother as well as Diana and Lizzie. After being disappointed by 2009’s Best Friends Forever, I’m glad to see Weiner is back to crafting entertaining, vivid character studies of loveable, complicated women. Fans of women’s fiction, contemporary fiction and the effervescent Weiner shouldn’t miss this one.
4 out of 5!