April Henry Learning to Fly: A Thriller

ISBN 13: 9780312290528

Learning to Fly: A Thriller

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9780312290528: Learning to Fly: A Thriller
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Nineteen-year-old Free Meeker has a shaved head, a nose ring, and a tattoo of Chinese characters around her biceps. She has a career, if you can call it that, as a pet groomer. And she has just learned that she is pregnant, and that her boyfriend is a two-timing bastard.

Then a disastrous highway pile-up erroneously adds her name to its list of victims - and hands Free a chance for a new life. In the chaos of the fiery accident, she acquired the identity papers of the hitchhiker who is mistaken for her - plus a gym bag filled with $740,000 in drug money that otherwise would have been burned up. Go, Free, go!

Free sets out to transform herself into Lydia, the sweet-faced girl whose identity she has assumed. Raised by aging hippies, Free has always secretly longed to be more "normal," to try shaving her underarms instead of her head. Now she has a chance to make herself over.

But Free doesn't know that two men are hot on her trail. One man wants the money back. If he doesn't get it soon, he knows he will end up dead. The other man wants his wife back. He doesn't know the real Lydia died in the accident, on the run from his pathological abuse. Now he is determined to "teach her a lesson" - even if the lesson is fatal.

As Free/Lydia settles into a new life full of possibilities, she is completely unaware that it is threatened by resourceful pursuers who are closing in on her.

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Review:

Penzler Pick, April 2002: An exceptionally gripping opening sets the pace for this suspenseful and original thriller from northwest writer April Henry. For those readers old enough to remember the classic 1960s New Wave French film Weekend, it will be easy enough to picture in the mind's eye the panoramic landscape of a massive, chain reaction-induced highway traffic disaster.

For others, Henry's vivid and nightmarish 14-page description is more than up to the task.

In Learning to Fly, the pileup is triggered by a freak eastern Oregon dust storm. Nineteen-year-old heroine Free Meeker is headed home--though not exactly rushing--to tell her laid-back, nonjudgmental, aging hippie parents that she's pregnant. Even more unexpected than the horrific 52-car collision from which she's walked away is the fact that the next day, before she can contact her family, the newspaper reports her among the fatalities.

"She didn't feel like a dead person--but she didn't feel real, either. Wearing only a borrowed muumuu, she was sitting cross-legged on a sagging double bed in a room at the Stay-A-While Motor Inn, three blocks from the hospital. During the night Free has gotten only snatches of sleep. Each time she closed her eyes, she saw dead people, cars cartwheeling through the air, the orange bloom of fire. Over and over again, she has flinched awake, hearing the squeal of tearing metal and the terrible boom of impacts in her dreams."
This set of circumstances is hardly enough to give Henry's plot the dense weight of dread it soon manifests. The body identified as Free's turns out to be that of a hitchhiking woman whose husband is a single-minded sadist-abuser who soon vengefully targets Free as his missing wife's rescuer. Moreover, the suitcase handed to Free by a suffering young man--he soon succumbs to his injuries--as she fled the scene of the disaster is revealed to contain nearly a million dollars that belongs to some impatient and unforgiving drug dealers.

This is a substantially loaded deck, and Free's intuitively self-preserving ability (after all, she has another life to consider) to play her own hand in response is what makes the novel, Henry's fourth, such compulsive reading. A classic tale of an innocent on the lam, Learning to Fly has the kind of plot that would have made Hitchcock smile in evil anticipation of its cinematic possibilities. And it's the kind of story that makes A Simple Plan by comparison look... simple. --Otto Penzler

About the Author:

April Henry lives in Portland, Oregon with her husband and young daughter. Her previous jobs include German translator, cook, housekeeper, hospital admitting clerk, life drawing model, and a brief stint as the girl who jumps out of a cake. April's first book, Circles of Confusion, was short-listed for the Agatha Award and the Anthony Award, wa selected for the Booksense 76, and was nominated for the Pacific Northwest Bookseller's Award. It was the first (and to date, only) mystery chosen for the Oregonian Book Club, a state-wide reading group.

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