Flying is the story of a divorced Pennsylvania woman, Stella, who lives with her teenage son Tristan. Her ex-husband, remarried and still an active co-parent, is the CEO of a small airline. Stella negotiated free flights in the settlement, and uses them on her “off duty” weekends to play dress up (wigs, garters), pick up men in airport bars, have steamy consensual sex with them, and return home before Tristan does. Once a flight attendant, she now works as a photo finisher, has a couple of friends at her “far from terrific” job, and, except for a serious pre-divorce flirtation with a local guy named Craig, has been single since her marriage ended.
Stella’s compulsion to “fly” as she calls it, is not just natural excess sexual energy, or a lark, but a flight from unfinished emotional business after a personal tragedy:
Something’s cold in her. And broken. But it’s her own fault, she supposes, for picking men she knows are already damaged because it feels easier to justify breaking them.
The sexual interludes are described in detail (this is erotic fiction), but mostly to establish Stella’s emotional state. In this way, Flying reminds me a bit of Broken, an earlier novel by Hart, in which the male protagonist, Joe, has a series of random sexual encounters, the point of which is ultimately to develop his character. In erotic fiction, you can’t remove the sex without removing important chunks of the story, and while I think that’s true in Flying, I have to admit that Stella’s particular way of dealing with her demons felt more like an interesting hook than something organically arising out of her personality or life experiences.
The tragedy from which Stella is recovering is not revealed in full until pretty late in the novel. A telltale sentence vey early on clued me in, and while I won’t say anything specific in this review, I don’t think figuring it out hurt my enjoyment of the novel at all. Flying is really about Stella’s recovery, and that is the part of the story I found most compelling, moving and interesting. Hart’s first few erotic novels were written in the first person, and even though this one is technically not, it stays so deep inside Stella’s point of view the entire novel that it might as well be.
Hart takes pains to clarify that there is nothing wrong with Stella’s sexual escapades, per se:
She never wondered what the men thought when she went with them to their hotel rooms or to shadowy corners. She never cared.
Rather, it’s the fact that her behavior is an unhealthy coping mechanisms that’s the problem:
Desire had becomes the one true constant in her life, the only feeling she could count on to never disappoint her. Desire required nothing from her. No investment. No responsibility. All desire wanted was to be sated. It was physical, and, therefore, could be killed.
I confess that I had a sense of dread with every one of stella’s ‘flights”, probably a legacy of watching Looking for Mr. Goodbar at a young age. I felt that it was dangerous, and yet Stella seemed to take no precautions against violence. I guess that shows the depth of her numbness.
On one of her flights, Stella meets Matthew, a gorgeous man whose job teaching night school seems discordant with his lovely apartment and BMW. Right away, they have a connection that is more than sexual. Matthew is recently divorced with two young children, and has a more complicated relationship with his ex than Stella does with hers. Their sexual relationship is perfection, but it’s a lot of one step forward, two steps back when it comes to the other stuff.
Hart doesn’t write the typical erotic romance, nor does she write what some readers call “gritty” romance (high stakes conflict). She writes more realistic novels, in tension with the usual fare in this subgenre. For example, Stella and Matthew are constantly interrupted by his ex-wife calling or texting, or even stopping by. They have an argument about this mere hours into their sexual encounter. To me, that is not the stuff of fantasy. I felt Matthew wasn’t much of a prize, but that didn’t stop me from caring a lot about Stella or from turning the book’s pages well past my bedtime.
As a parent of a teen son, I loved the focus on Stella’s relationship with her son. Those scenes rang very true to me. They felt painful and sweet and real:
She loved her son, always, with every breath inside her. But there’d been a lot of days lately where she found it very difficult to like him.
I also liked the way Stella processed her evolving relationship with her ex, and his wife. I really enjoy Hart’s voice (this is the sixth novel of hers I’ve read, plus a few novellas), and if you do as well, then I recommend Flying (I thought it was stronger than Stranger and Deeper, the last two of hers I read). If you are a very focused romance reader whose enjoyment of a romance depends almost solely on how invested you are in the main couple, I have some doubts about whether this will work for you. If you are interested in reading a romance that pushes the edges of the genre, or a work of erotic fiction that tries to do more than get the reader off, I recommend it.
I received this book free from the publisher via Net Galley.