Click here to read reviewer Stephanie Velasco's take on In Hovering Flight.
My first impression when reading this novel is that Hinnefeld is addressing a great theme: the indestructible essence of the creative spirit that drives her protagonist, impressive ornithologist and artist, Addie Kavanaugh. In thrall to the study of birds, Addie is a rapt student in Tom Kavanaugh’s class; she is also immediately smitten with her teacher. Indeed, they appear a perfect match, isolated and content within the constraints of their work and life goals.
The addition of a daughter, Scarlet, only strengthens the family bond. The three range over the East Coast and other locations, some exotic, contentedly drawing species and keeping precise field notes. Addie builds a reputation as an artist, while Tom is much admired for his seminal work, A Prosody of Birds, the professor endlessly fascinated by the music of the species. Cocooned in their rarified world, the Kavanaugh’s appear to enjoy idealized lives, consumed by the work they love and a close circle of friends.
The novel opens at the end of Addie’s life; she is dying after a second bout with cancer, this time untreated, with best friend Cora and Tom at her side. Lou, another dear if more controversial friend, also attends Addie’s passing. The three women have been best friends since their early days as avid students at the small Pennsylvania college where they were Tom’s devoted ornithology students.
Addie has made a novel request for her remains, perhaps illegal; those gathered ruminate whether to follow the instructions of the deceased or bury her in the conventional manner. Eventually Addie’s request will be viewed on its merits, a need to make a final statement of her place in the world.
Of them all, Scarlet struggles to accommodate the memories of her early days with her mother, warring with the more troubled times of her teen and adult years. There are the usual mother-daughter conflicts, but Scarlet hides a secret of her own, one she treasures even as she bids farewell to Addie.
The metaphor is simple: Addie is fascinated by birds and their importance to nature’s balance and perfection, her art soaring to meet these winged creatures, to embrace their beauty and ecological value. But the device fails halfway through the novel when Addie plunges, land-bound, cowed by personal disappointments and an environment under siege, the once-hopeful artist turned bitter and cynical.
Unfortunately, the mature Addie relinquishes the enthusiastic artist, life’s burdens disgorging a rage that all but overwhelms her, endlessly ranting against pollutants, poisons and the degradations of the earth. Her sense of humor erodes over time, leaving Tom desperate and Scarlet happy to live away from the family home.
The great love affair with Tom, her daughter, her friends and nature, albeit roundly attested, lacks passion, failing even to evoke my reluctant sympathy for this character, Addie firmly tethered to the earth.