The Spitfire Girls by Soraya M. Lane – A Review

This is another review that was a longer time coming than I intended. We had two deaths in our immediate family,only five days apart, so I’ve traveled to the other side of the world to take care of my family. Thankfully, I have many ARCs and uncorrected proofs to distract me.

The Spitfire Girls is to be published next month, and I was fortunate enough to receive a free copy through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

This novel’s summary and general premise is intriguing, both as a feminist and as someone who finds World War II stories to be both interesting and important. That being said, I was expecting to enjoy this work.

Unfortunately, I didn’t.

As just discussed, the premise is wonderful – women pilots helping to ferry planes to allied forces during the war. The execution, however, fell flat. The story begins with a young woman named Lizzie who is reading a letter she wrote, addressed to First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, arguing for the inclusion of women in the war effort – specifically in the capacity of aircraft ferrier. What could be more timely? In this seemingly new age of renewed feminism, it is easy to see how this story should resonate with readers. But, in my humble opinion, it doesn’t. Why might that be?

Let’s explore.

That first chapter begins with a gusto. We begin smack dab in the middle of Lizzie’s letter-writing campaign. I was struck by how childish she seemed to be – it wasn’t until she spoke of her piloting experience that I actually realized that she is supposed to be a grown woman. Then, without much ado, she is invited to meet with the President, the First Lady, and a military General. At this meeting, she learns that the only reason they agreed to the meeting in the first place was because of Lizzie’s father’s own decorated military history and fame. Lizzie finds this surprising, and her surprise, quite frankly, bothers me. This is a woman who wants to train a squadron for non-active military service and is petitioning for the inclusion of women in a traditionally all-male realm, yet she is unbelievably naive. Add to that is the author’s need to emphasize how utterly feminine Lizzie is in a very stereotypical, traditional sense, aside from her love of flying and her feminist bent. Now, I do not mean to imply that one cannot be a feminist while being traditionally feminine. But the author’s over-the-top insistence reads as a sort of apology, a softening of feminism so it doesn’t offend. Who is she trying to placate? People in general? Her readers? Men? Herself? Further, Lizzie’s impulsiveness and her diarrhea of the mouth in the presence of President Franklin D. Roosevelt serve to uphold the gender stereotypes that woman are too impulsive (read: either driven by emotions or intellectually deficient) and silly, which is completely anathema to the book’s purpose.

The second chapter involves Ruby, a young woman who is trying to plan her wedding while her fiance is on active duty, and her soon-to-be mother-in-law, as they discuss wedding dresses, cake, and other such details. Halfway through the scene, Ruby’s mother suddenly begins to speak, ostensibly there the entire time, but unmentioned. Now, she was obviously an afterthought and this will likely be fixed in the corrected proof, but even so. As it stands, her mother serves no particular purpose to the scene. In the following chapter, Ruby has signed up for service and is having her medical exam, which involves complete nudity (just as it does for men). While I have no issue with Ruby’s general discomfort about the necessity of being naked in front of the medic, the author offers that Ruby felt as though the doctor required her nudity simply for his own enjoyment but offers nothing beyond that. No awkwardness, no inappropriate comments, staring, or touching, nothing. This sparks of melodrama and trying to play on contemporary public sentiment regarding men in positions of authority taking advantage of women. If the authors wants to add this facet to her novel, fine. But it should be done with more than a simple, baseless accusation – we need at least something more than a general impression without a single example.

In the third chapter, Lizzie is crossing the Atlantic ocean in order to train with the British women’s squadron. The chapter commences with Lizzie’s description of the plentiful and delicious food, wine, and cocktails. Now, while it is true that service members were allotted more food during the war, rationing was still a thing! It seems very unlikely that there would be such bounty, particularly on a ship bound for England. At the time, Germany was exerting significant effort into destroying ships bound for the UK because the Brits needed to import well over HALF of their food supply. It seems irresponsible (and thus unbelievable) that such bounty would be risked on a ship delivering people – enough to feed everyone adequately, sure! But enough for what was described? Absolutely not. At best, this is lazy writing and indicates that the author preferred to make erroneous assumptions rather than spend valuable time researching. Secondly, when they finally make land, Lizzie decides to joke loudly with the servicewomen who come to meet her, ignoring the pamphlet she read an hour ago. Her reaction their apparent lack of humour was off-putting – these Englishwomen, along with the rest of their countrymen, have already been at war for 3 years. Years of rationing, death, destruction. And Lizzie is upset that they’re having trouble taking a joke. She behaves in such a way as to confirm the international stereotype of American behaviour, yet the author feels that we should sympathize with her instead of the others? When they meet up for dinner later, Lizzie continues to be disrespectful, flippant, and irritating. Being confident of your abilities is one thing, but being a braggart is another, and Lizzie can’t seem to stop touting herself left and right. And then she proceeds to insult the subordinate officer because she figures she looks too small and delicate to be a pilot. This, coming from a woman who complains about sexism. Ha!

I had stopped being offended after this for quite some time, that is, until the beginning of chapter 13. Ruby is the first woman to fly a bomber (amazing!), but the effect is completely ruined when the author has her touching up her make-up in the sky. This is, frankly, obscene. People have died making this trip, and Ruby is sacrificing a lot to be the first woman to do it in a bomber – possibly her romantic future, possibly her flying career, possibly her own life, and we’re supposed to believe that she would risk all of that to powder her nose and touch up her lipstick?! My God! After 12 hours straight in economy class without the looming risk of being shot out of the sky, even I am not that vain and I’m a daily makeup user. It’s a bit much.

Later, Lizzie is finally called to task and humbled after showing off – and subsequently losing as a result – during a flying competition to see who, between her and Ruby, would earn the honour of being the first woman bomber pilot. She makes an extraordinary public spectacle of herself with her ego overtaking whatever limited sense she has. After being suitably humbled, she suddenly becomes a much softer person. Oh boy. Can people change? Absolutely! That quickly? Nope. It’s too much, too fast. It’s just not believable. Additionally, if a man behaved thus, even in wartime, he would have been discharged dishonourably because loose cannons like Lizzie can’t be relied upon.

Lane’s characters are underdeveloped and lack nuance or are simply there to be there. Lizzie, Ruby, and Montgomery are described such that they come across as caricatures of their archetypes. The supporting characters are bland and largely useless – Ben helps and loves May, but he seems to have to real personality. Polly is everyone’s friend but isn’t really part of the story and (spoiler alert!) her sole purpose seems to be to serve as someone that the characters can lose as a consequence of war. We as readers feel for those who lost her, but we feel nothing when we hear of her death because the author never makes us care for her.

This book wasn’t terrible. But it also wasn’t good. The true, inspiring story portrayed in this fictionalized account was overshadowed by the superficiality of the writing. The bones are good – the general story is there, the historical and contemporary importance are there, but this novel reads more like a “this happened then this happened then this happened” list of details rather than a heartrending, rousing piece on why women deserve equal standing with men and why these women (or their true historical counterparts) deserve to be remembered.

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