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by Meredith Jaeger
Dutton, October 2021
339 pages
ISBN: 0593185897

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

In December of 1944, Ellie Morgan and her mother receive a telegram telling them that Ellie’s father has been shot down over the Adriatic. He and his crew are missing and presumed dead. Ellie, an aspiring reporter working as a secretary at the San Francisco Chronicle, refuses to believe her father has died and is determined to use her reporting skills to find him or at least get more details about what happened to him. When a package from the Army arrives containing his belongings, including love letters to an unknown woman and her daughter, Ellie enlists her aunt Iris to go with her to New York City to find the woman and perhaps clues to her father's whereabouts—and his unknown life.

Thus begins a journey into a past full of family secrets and an unsolved murder that will lead Ellie to question everything she knows about her family and herself.

In THE PILOT'S DAUGHTER, Meredith Jaeger alternates between Iris's story, set in the 1920s and Ellie's, set in the present of 1945, taking the reader to both the glittering (and sometimes not so glittering) theater world of the Jazz Age in New York and the less glittering world of wartime. And while a murder mystery and dark family secrets are at the center of the novel, the novel itself is primarily about women's choices in both the 1920s and 1945 and the consequences of those choices.

Iris's story revolves around the real, unsolved murder of Dot King, the Broadway Butterfly who was found murdered in her apartment in 1923, and it is the stronger of the two stories. Told in the first person, it traces Iris’s life as a showgirl who becomes a rich man's mistress wearing furs, diamonds, and designer dresses and is seemingly in command of her future at a time when everything seems possible. But, of course, not all is as it seems on the surface, and Iris has to make hard decisions and survive unspeakable circumstances that will affect her all her life.

By contrast, Ellie's life in 1945 is constricted by her mother's and society's expectations that she become a wife and mother and forsake her dreams of becoming a reporter, as well as by the crushing reality of the probable loss of her father and general deprivations and fears engendered by a world at war. She, too, must make choices that, like Iris's, are based on personal beliefs rather than societal norms and which will change the course of her life.

Jaeger portrays both eras presented in the novel well, giving telling details of the times to draw the reader into the settings. Some of the research is rather heavily handedly presented instead of being worked seamlessly into the narrative, but the results do the job of showing life in both San Francisco and New York City at the times—including the changes and contrasts wrought by time and war between the two periods.

Jaeger also does a nice job of portraying two strong-minded women as they struggle to make sense of their lives, themselves, and their circumstances. The novel is primarily Ellie's coming-of-age story, but Iris tends to steal the show with the immediacy of a first-person narrative and an action-filled rather than contemplative story. Ellie's struggles, while real and convincingly portrayed as emotionally wrenching, come off as shallower than Iris's, and, again, Jaeger is a bit heavy handed in hammering home the restrictions placed on women in 1945.

The restrictions were, of course, real. Ellie's journey to find ways to overcome them is important. The subject is not one to be overlooked or dismissed. Still, it is evident in the showing and simply needed a bit less telling, as is done in Iris’s story.

Ultimately, though, both women come to believable though predictable breakthroughs and resolutions to their struggles to find themselves and release their burdens of guilt and anger. Along the way, they also uncover a satisfying solution to the murder of the Broadway Butterfly. All in all, Jaeger presents a compelling mix of plot, setting, and characterization that is hard to put down.

§ Meredith Frazier, a writer with a background in English literature, lives in Dallas, Texas

Reviewed by Meredith Frazier, September 2021

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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