I’ve seen this book described as a beach read, a page turner, and a thrill ride. None of which made me want to read it, since it sounded mindless. But I gave it a chance when it showed up on the New York Times list of 100 Notable Books of 2016. I may have read with low expectations, but I was happily surprised.
The story is this: eleven people take a ride on a posh chartered jet leaving from Martha’s Vineyard. Two of them are extremely wealthy, powerful men, both with plenty of enemies. The remaining passengers are their wives and children, two pilots, a flight attendant, a bodyguard, and a struggling painter who befriended one of the wives. Shortly into the flight, the plane drops into the ocean for no apparent reason.
Two passengers survive (I’m not giving anything away here), the artist and a young boy. The boy is the son of a media mogul who created what is essentially Fox News, or as he puts it, journalism “that chooses a side”. Scott, the artist, used to be a competitive swimmer, and he swims to shore with the boy on his back. Once ashore, he’s hailed as a hero and the boy is taken away to live with his aunt and uncle.
The book gives you the “before” of all these characters — how did they end up on that plane? What were their issues and was one of them targeted for death? As you learn the backstories it seems likely there was foul play, but what happened, and why?
Intertwined with the past is the aftermath of the disaster — the investigation, the media uproar, and the struggles of the two survivors to come to grips with what happened. Scott is attacked relentlessly by a character I thought of as a thinly veiled Rush Limbaugh (although you could pick your far-right TV personality). Bill Cunningham was about to be fired from the network, but instead uses the tragedy to increase his stardom and inflame the public, by creating conspiracy theories around Scott. Why was he on the plane, and why did he survive? What did he know that the rest didn’t?
In the beginning I found this book a bit too quick to excuse the crooked journalism of Fox News. The media mogul is portrayed as human, a man with a family, even if obsessed by his work. I find the vicious, slanted journalism a bit more than “news with a point of view.” But I was ultimately satisfied by the issues raised in this book.
If reading this book feels like watching a movie or a TV show, that’s no surprise, as author Hawley has years of experience in television (currently a showrunner on the show Fargo), and his experience translates well in a book that is hard to put down but also more complex than you expect. Scott is a particularly engaging character with an interesting past, but the others are as well. I wouldn’t call it a “thrill ride” exactly, because it’s more emotional than action-packed. And for me that’s a good thing.
A satisfying, thoughtful, and gripping read that I highly recommend. Just not while you’re on a plane.