Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Wednesday, November 20, 2019: Maximum Shelf: The Last Flight

Sourcebooks Landmark: The Last Flight by Julie Clark

Sourcebooks Landmark: The Last Flight by Julie Clark Sourcebooks Landmark: The Last Flight by Julie Clark Sourcebooks Landmark: The Last Flight by Julie Clark

The Last Flight

by Julie Clark

Claire Cook lives a glamorous life in Manhattan with her handsome husband, Rory, beloved son of a political dynasty. They reside in an old-money townhouse with a staff catering to their every need. But the façade is quickly peeled back in Julie Clark's engrossing thriller, The Last Flight, to reveal Rory as a manipulative abuser behind closed gilded doors. Rory orchestrates Claire's every move, scheduling her days down to the minute and tracking her whereabouts with her phone. If she goes public with abuse accusations against her outwardly charming husband, her life would transform from a faux fairy tale into a worse nightmare. Her only choice is to disappear.

With help from a friend she has kept hidden from Rory, Claire starts squirreling away cash and obtains a new identity. Then her perfect opportunity to vanish comes along: she is scheduled for an appearance without Rory at an event in Detroit. She can just fly there and never return.

But disappearing from one's life isn't that easy.

On the morning of her flight to Detroit, Rory thwarts her plans, leaving her at JFK airport booked on a flight to Puerto Rico instead, without her cash and fake ID. Just when she believes all hope for escape is lost, Claire meets a stranger with a tale to tell.

Eva recently lost her husband to cancer, but she helped end his pain when she could no longer endure his suffering. Now authorities are waiting for her back home in California with questions, and she really doesn't want to get on her flight.

In an impulsive heartbeat, Claire realizes Eva is literally her ticket out, and suggests the two women trade boarding passes. They already went through security, and records would show them boarding their intended flights. They would elude anyone waiting for them at their destinations, and could drop off the grid from there. After they exchange outer clothing, bags and phones, the switch is on.

Claire lands safely in Oakland, then learns that while she was airborne, the flight to Puerto Rico crashed into the ocean. With her name on the flight manifest, the media plasters Claire's face everywhere and she's forced to take refuge at Eva's house until the frenzy dies down. There, she discovers Eva told her nothing but lies, and Claire starts to wonder if Eva ever boarded the doomed flight.

Julie Clark puts these two multifaceted women in desperate situations and continuously ramps up the heat. Eva's chapters are told in past tense, showing how she arrived at the turning point in her life, while Claire's story unfolds in the present. Readers will race through the pages to learn Eva's fate and what will happen to Claire, who finds herself in a situation even more dangerous than her own after taking Eva's place. A man seems to be stalking Claire, and why is there a locked door in Eva's house?

The brisk pace and criminal elements make The Last Flight a thriller, but it's also an affecting exploration of friendship and loneliness, and the search for one's place in the world. Claire and Eva are not heroic or badass; they are everywomen who must rely on their own smarts and resiliency to save themselves. Readers don't have to agree with the choices Claire and Eva make to understand the women are driven by survival, and a determination to not give up when life deals them lousy cards.

Neither has much of a support system, and both feel isolated even around people. Though Claire is married with a full-time staff, no one seems to truly know her. When she meets a woman in Oakland who shows her the type of kindness that's been elusive for her, Claire's ache is palpable as she realizes she can't fully accept the woman's friendship because one day soon she would leave the woman behind.

Readers learn that Eva had also endured loneliness for years, before encountering a neighbor who exuded the maternal warmth she'd long craved. She could never let herself get close to the older woman, however, due to Eva's line of work--the illicit activity behind her own closed doors: "something shifted inside of her, something shiny and vulnerable and dangerous rose close to the surface, breaking through her hard exterior. And Eva knew, without a doubt, that being loved by Liz was more terrifying than anything she'd ever done, because she knew she wouldn't always have her."

But during the brief airport exchange with Claire, the two strangers recognize each other's most intimate self. It's as if each woman hands over not only her possessions but a small piece of her soul, to someone who knows that sometimes the most important flight one can take is a leap of faith. And after the women part ways, their impact on each other lingers, as will The Last Flight in readers' minds. --Elyse Dinh-McCrillis

Sourcebooks Landmark, $26.99, hardcover, 288p., 9781728215723, June 2, 2020

Sourcebooks Landmark: The Last Flight by Julie Clark

Julie Clark: Writing What She Teaches

(Eric A. Reid Photography)

Julie Clark teaches school and lives in Santa Monica, Calif., with her two young sons and a goldendoodle. Her debut novel, The Ones We Choose, was optioned for television by Lionsgate. Coming from Sourcebooks Landmark in June 2020 is Clark's second book, The Last Flight, about two strangers, Claire and Eva, who impulsively swap identities at an airport when they realize they both need to disappear from their lives for different reasons.

When explaining why she needs to vanish instead of publicly accusing her seemingly charming philanthropic husband of abuse, Claire asks whether anyone would've believed Carolyn Bessette-Kennedy if she'd claimed John F. Kennedy Jr. was violent. Do you think people would believe her now, in the #MeToo era?

The #MeToo movement has allowed more women to come forward with their stories, which is great, but there are still too many people who question a woman's motives when calling out a powerful man's abuse. I think women have to work harder, be louder and have more evidence than might be expected of a man. And even when they do, justice isn't always served.

Claire is reluctant to come forward not just because she isn't sure people would want to believe the worst of her husband, but also because she knows speaking out would take a very personal and traumatic experience and push it into the public realm. It would be talked about on news shows, social media, and appropriated in a way that can often re-traumatize a victim over and over again.

The book isn't only a thriller; it's also an exploration of identity, love and loneliness. Claire and Eva are strangers, but they also know something about the other that no one else does, which makes them confidantes, in a way.

One of the most satisfying parts of writing this book was playing around with the many ways Eva and Claire share a space in the world. They're in only one scene together, yet they are irrevocably connected. That Claire can have such an unvarnished and intimate understanding of who Eva is makes the two intertwined in a way that feels intensely personal. I love writing the shift characters make from judgment to understanding, because it forces us to challenge the assumptions we make about the people in our lives.

Whose POV was easier to write?

They were both challenging in their own ways. For Eva, much of the book is written in the past, as we grow to understand how she got to this place in her life where she needs to disappear. I was able to explore backstory and really flesh it out, but you risk slowing the story down. So the trick with Eva was to weave all of that emotion into a story that pushes the reader forward, as they try to figure out who Eva is and how her story dovetails with Claire's.

Claire was easier to write because the stakes for her are automatically high. The tension of what she's stepping into without having a full understanding of Eva's world creates a forward momentum almost on its own.

What's the most impulsive favor you've ever done for a stranger?

Probably paying for their groceries, but that's pretty tame. Which is why the scene with Claire and Eva at the airport where they decide to trade tickets felt so compelling to me. It brought up all kinds of questions: If I were running for my life, what kind of risks would I take? And the bigger one: Who would I trust?

Originally I wrote it from Claire's POV, but I couldn't make it land the way I wanted it to, mostly because she was coming from a place of utter panic, and it was really hard to get her to calm down enough to come up with something so calculating. By writing the scene from Eva's perspective, we see Claire through her eyes, and how Claire believes the idea to switch tickets is hers but also knows it's really Eva who's driving that conversation.

How much research did you do for this book? Enough to drop off the grid if you wanted to?

The research I did was not only centered on how to disappear, but also how to successfully make and sell drugs. I have a childhood friend who used to work for the FBI, and my texts to him could be concerning if taken out of context.

They included how one might obtain a high-quality fake identity, including all necessary documents (his answer: the Russian mafia is the only game in town), how to accurately describe how someone might make methamphetamines (answer: they are highly explosive and smell bad), and how drug investigations work (answer: they are long, expensive and require a lot of manpower).

I didn't go so far as to actually try to meet with anyone affiliated with the Russian mafia or a drug dealer/maker, but if you have friends in the right places, you can get a lot of information without ever having to change out of your pajamas.

How did writing your second novel compare to writing your first?

Like with my debut, I knew almost from the beginning how The Last Flight was going to end. Revision was a process of figuring out Oh, hey, this is a thriller and learning how to write one. Then learning how to blend two separate narratives and balance dual timelines.

Once I understood how the plots worked--how they switched, where they each went--I began weaving in the themes I wanted to highlight: misogyny, the power differential between men and women, emotional and physical abuse and the toll it can take on a person, and the price it sometimes exacts when someone decides to come forward. 

I also wanted to make sure my characters didn't fall into the familiar trope of the unreliable female narrator. I teach young girls, and middle grade and young adult fiction are filled with amazing female role models. But when we move up to the adult category, the women in many thrillers suddenly become crazy, love-starved, unbalanced or unreliable.

So one of my primary goals with The Last Flight was to make sure I wrote two characters who are strong, smart and courageous, because someday my students will grow up and might read my books. I want to make sure they see me putting on the page what I'm telling them every day: You are capable. You matter. You can do anything you set your mind to. And don't let anyone make you feel as if you need to take up less space. 

What are you working on now?

It's very early days, but the book I'm working on is about a writer whose father was a famous literary icon who only wrote one book, and the secret about him she's been guarding since she was 14. It's both a domestic suspense and a family drama about the dark places that live inside some families, how far we're willing to go to protect the ones we love, and how, even after the main players are gone, their secrets can live on and bleed down into the generations that follow. --Elyse Dinh-McCrillis

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