In Night Strangers, my favorite Chris Bohjalian novel, one of the main characters is a disgraced pilot who attempts to pull a Sullenberger-type maneuver when his plane slams into a flock of geese, but unlike Sullenberger’s Miracle on the Hudson, the water landing fails, and the aftermath is thirty-nine dead passengers. In his 2017 novel, The Sleepwalker, Bohjalian’s blond and almost ethereally beautiful protagonist goes missing, leaving her two daughters and husband behind. Now, in The Flight Attendant, his heroine Cassandra Bowden appears to be an amalgam of the pilot with the missing blond mother and wife. Not identical, just close enough to harbor a comparison.
But Cassie Bowden isn’t a mother or a pilot. She is a flight attendant with a well-known binge drinking problem, who often forgets what she did and who she slept with the night before. It’s not difficult to speculate that Cassie’s drinking is tied to a troubled childhood, which is promptly revealed with the mention of her alcoholic father. It’s this legacy she carries around with her like a boulder, unable to rid herself of its impossible weight.
When she awakens in a hotel room in Dubai, hung over and remembering nothing, she assumes it’s just another of her many sexual dalliances overseas. But the man next to her is dead, his throat has been slashed violently and silently during the night. After her initial shock and disbelief, Cassie begins to remember the previous night. The man, a passenger in her section of first class, her memories bits and pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Within her jumbled thoughts, there is a question she cannot bring herself to answer: did she kill him?
Bohjalian is masterful at leaving clues in plain sight, making you kick yourself later that you failed to see them. Like a modern Agatha Christie, the answers to the riddle were always there, but we believed the wrong person or trusted the wrong narrative. The Flight Attendant follows that direction, only if you know what you’re looking for.
In her panic and not knowing if she’s responsible for the man’s murder, Cassie’s self-preservation prevails, and she bolts from the hotel to join her flight crew out of Dubai, after removing shards of glass from a broken bottle which was used as the murder weapon and hurriedly wiping down her fingerprints as best she can.
Her unease at being caught is palpable even as she boards her plane: “When she was back on her feet and standing with the galley and flight deck behind her, the only person watching her was the sky marshal. She wondered if he could sense, rather like a lion, her fear.”
Immediately things begin to go downhill. Cassie can’t properly hide her terror at being discovered, and combined with her drinking and utterly ridiculous behavior, leaves her open and vulnerable to increased scrutiny from her co-workers, her family and ultimately, the FBI.
As is frequent in Bohjalian’s novels, the mystery is not so simple and Cassie tires her hardest to find out more about the murdered man’s identity and who could have wanted him dead. But in her attempt to clear her name, Cassie repeatedly takes foolish risks while continuing to indulge in more drinking and casual sex.
Bohjalian’s portrayal of Cassandra as a woman who after heavy drinking engages in sex and then fails to remember what she did due to alcoholic blackouts, drives a strong message in the #MeToo era. What we could have read as reckless behavior on Cassie’s part say five years ago, now takes a moral and even criminal tint, harboring the question that if Cassie was too drunk most of the time to give consent, doesn’t that mean that she has been repeatedly raped while drunk or unconscious?
With the murdered man, she has memories of consenting to having sex and wanting it. But the previous times? Cassie isn’t sure, which makes her self-loathing much more painful and heart-breaking.
But the more she finds, the more questions arise. There’s the alleged presence of an unknown woman in the hotel room the night of the murder who has vanished in thin air, making Cassie question her own memories of that night. Her past and present recklessness come back to haunt her, even as she tries and fails, to leave them behind.
And she had slept the rest of the night beside his corpse. In the same sheets. Her head on the pillow beside his pillow. His blood clinging to her hair. This was a spectacular, revolting fail even by her standards for indignity and mortification. She guessed if she weren’t already such a lush, the revelation would have driven her to drink.
At the mid-point of the novel, Cassie reflects on the origins of her name. In Greek mythology, Cassandra is the daughter of King Priam and Queen Hecuba of Troy, who was given the gift of prophesy by Apollo. When she refused his advances, Apollo left her a curse by spitting in her mouth. This caused that no one would ever again believe a word she said, and Cassandra lived for the rest of her life “in frustration and dread.” Cassandra sees this as a parable of her own life, oozing with too many lies and recklessness.
Bohjalian has often remarked that he was inspired to write The Flight Attendant due to his many travels and his admiration for a profession that is deemed glamorous but in reality, is anything but. In the novel, the resolution when it comes, seems a little bit too tidy, a tad too perfect, too neatly tied up. But that doesn’t mean the novel is step-by-step predictable or easily guessed. The twists and turns are abundant enough to keep the reader guessing and wondering who is telling the truth.
Perhaps next time we board a plane, we will look at the flight attendants with new eyes. We might try to see a little more carefully behind the placed smile, the tired eyes. After all, who knows what goes on after landing, inside their real lives, within their own walls. With The Flight Attendant, Chris Bohjalian has shown us a glimpse of the truth that could be hidden beyond that thin divider curtain.