There still may be historical romance readers who bemoan Patricia Gaffney’s flight to contemporary women’s fiction, so I’ll try not to gloat too much in this review. But if you’re waiting for Gaffney to come to her senses and return to romance, I think you’re out of luck. Flight Lessons, Gaffney’s third hardcover release, is her strongest novel to date, an insightful character-driven journey from fear and anger to joy and forgiveness.
Thirty-five year old Anna Catalano is less devastated about the actual act of catching her lover Jay in bed with her friend Nicole than about how the event echoes an earlier trauma. Discovering Jay’s infidelity seems eerily reminiscent of the time 15 years ago when Anna realized that her father and her mother’s sister, Rose, were lovers - and suspected that they had been together seven years earlier, when Anna’s mother was dying of cancer.
Ever since that shocking discovery, Anna has drifted around among many different cities, jobs and boyfriends, most recently managing a coffee house in Buffalo. So when Anna’s Aunt Iris calls to tell her that Rose needs a new manager for the family’s restaurant on Maryland’s Eastern shore, Anna is less than enthusiastic. She reluctantly accepts the offer to manage Bella Sorella, but warns Iris and Rose that it’s a temporary arrangement only. Her father died several years ago, and Anna feels nothing but anger at the aunt who betrayed her own sister.
Upon her arrival in Maryland, Anna learns that Bella Sorella is in a major decline, and in danger of closing for good. Anna’s interpersonal and managerial skills are urgently needed, and she’s glad to be so busy that she doesn’t have much time to dwell on the cordial but tense relationship with her once beloved Aunt Rose. But gradually she notices that Rose has her own problems. Her lover, Theo, suffers from Parkinson’s Disease and is fighting a losing battle against his own body. Rose has little energy left for the restaurant, which leaves Anna in charge of a motley but loyal staff, highlighted by her cousin Vinnie the bartender; the elderly, conservative chef Carmen; and the new, prickly line cook, Frankie, who has remarkable culinary talent but an equally large chip on her shoulder.
Surprisingly, Anna develops a relationship with Theo’s stepson, Mason, whose scarred face, body and soul can’t hide a rare artistic talent. While Anna helps Mason move past his fears, she keeps her emotional distance because, after all, she’s not staying in Maryland for long. For that to happen, she’d have to forgive Rose, which she doesn’t intend to do. But Rose has a few things to tell Anna that she doesn’t want to hear - like the truth about what happened among Anna’s mother, father and aunt. And frankly, Rose is tired of being the only survivor of the triangle and thus the focus for all of Anna’s rage.
I enjoyed Gaffney’s two previous contemporary novels, The Saving Graces and Circle of Three, but she exceeds those novels with Flight Lessons’ seamless integration of family, work and romance dynamics. The decisions that go into running a successful restaurant are fascinating, and the variety of personalities that make up the Bella Sorella staff give the novel its depth. For example, family member Carmen, representing the traditional Italian restaurant school, contrasts sharply with upstart Frankie, who is full of new ideas that could bring new customers - or alienate the old ones.
Anna’s romance with Mason is slightly understated, but their scenes together are charming. Mason is the ultimate tortured hero, with a tragic past and emotional problems that limit his ability to fully function, but he’s gentle, sexy, talented and ultimately heroic. From their cautious exchange of e-mails to Mason’s final triumphant gesture, I loved everything about the man (except his name).
But the love story ultimately plays second fiddle to the resolution of Anna and Rose’s relationship. In a way the dynamics are more complicated than a parent and child reconciliation because of Anna’s loyalty to her dead mother. In fact, at times Anna comes off as stubborn and unlikable, although she redeems herself by her eagerness to help both Mason and Frankie. Rose’s persistence, even in the face of her own personal tragedy, helps the reader see all the love that Anna is forsaking. The novel’s last scene is virtually word-for-word perfect, as the two women make the most natural choice to symbolize their new understanding.
Although the theme of returning home to family has been a popular one this year, Gaffney distinguishes herself from the pack by refusing to use simplified clichés such as Bad City vs. Good Small Town, or Career Women Who Finds Happiness in Domesticity. Instead, she creates multi-faceted characters to care about, and a realistic but optimistic ending. Like a good Italian restaurant, Flight Lessons is inviting, warm and satisfying.