The Flight Attendant
Chris Bohjalian
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The Flight Attendant
Chris Bohjalian
368 pages
March 2018
rated 5 of 5 possible stars

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I sense that Bohjalian has been waiting his whole life to write this clever melding of geo-politics and literary suspense. The Flight Attendant is a tale of murder and international travel, where both corrupt Americans and Russians unexpectedly converge into the life of flight attendant Cassie Bowen. Cassie wakes up with a whopping hangover in a room at The Royal Phoenician, a luxury hotel in Dubai. An embarrassing drunk who suffers from blackouts, Cassie seems like a dramatic foil to a newer age. Bohjalian details Cassie's story with precision, rattling off the names of luxurious places that add an exotic, furtive, fairy-tale quality to the tale.

Cassie is used to waking up in strange beds with strange men with no memory of how she got there. It's a bit of a surprise that she can recall Alex Sokolov, a young hedge-fund manager who was sitting in Aisle 2C on her flight from New York to Dubai. As another wave of nausea hits, Cassie recalls Alex taking a call from his friend Miranda. Her hangover soon becomes a minor glitch in a scene awash in the crimson stains of blood. Falling back on her need for self-preservation, Cassie impulsively attempts to cover her tracks, reckoning it will take about ninety minutes to get back to the lobby of her hotel and by ready to leave for the airport and the flight back to Paris, then home to JFK. She's not a violent drunk, just "degrading and caustic" and, on occasion, dangerous to herself. This one-night hookup had seemed at first seemed rather inconsequential. She's done other "batshit crazy things when she was in the blotto zone"--when she was "blackout drunk"--but this situation has become an absolute mess.

Here in the Middle East, with disturbing frequency, Cassie runs headlong into hazardous terrain. In desperation, she turns to her colleague Megan, the one person Cassie has flown with over the years who has never seemed at all worried by her constant absences. As Cassie's shock evaporates like the morning haze, she thinks about the man she left behind. She makes a litany in her mind of the little she knows about Alex's personal life: the drinking, the sex, the broken pieces of the bottle of Stoli. Cassie moves forward because, like the planes on which she has lived so much of her life, this is the only direction that allows for survival.

As Cassie fights for her safety, Elena, the other voice in the tale, defends herself against Viktor, a shady assassin with murky connections to Russian oligarchs. Elena confesses to Viktor that she simply couldn't bring herself to execute the "pathetic, inebriated flight attendant" who just happened to be "in the wrong place at the wrong time." Safely back in New York, Cassie's anxiety grows more pronounced. She understands there's nothing heroic about who she is. She's spent a decade drinking too much and making bad decisions. Alcohol has given her pleasure and courage; it has also given her confidence and faith in herself.

In the last sections of the novel, the noose draws tight, the air dense with the distant remnants of a dream. Bohjalian writes an assassin's tale involving the KGB, corrupt Russian oligarchs, ("alpha males who take no prisoners"), and the aftermath of Cassie's trauma as she goes on the hunt for "Miranda." From the cursory interviews by FBI agents to a meeting with the airline's union rep, Cassie ruminates on why she was spared. Was Cassie being duped, or is she part of a wider conspiracy? Is she a forty-year-old "alcoholic assassin," suddenly killing the men with whom she has slept? And what of Buckley, the handsome actor Cassie meets at a bar in the East Village and has a drunken fling with? A beacon shines deep inside her, "a warning light that now flashes red." While Cassie's efforts to vindicate herself are central to the plot, more vital is the tortured backstory in which Cassie is portrayed as a little girl in the back seat of the family car, scared as her drunken father flies out of control in his hideous blue Dodge Colt.

Melding the classic detective story with the Hitchcockian suspense genre, Bohjalian delivers another knockout blow, fully fleshing out Cassie's emotional landscape--her hopes, her fears, and her regrets--as well the plain, unvarnished reality that, even flying above at thirty-five thousand feet, we cannot escape who we really are.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at Michael Leonard, 2018

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