Two women, Claire Cook and Eva James, are running away, and connect in an airport bar. Exchanging tickets, Claire flies to Oakland, desperate to leave her husband Rory, a powerful, angry, and possessive man. Eva will fly to Puerto Rico instead. Eva, raised by nuns in a group home, studied chemistry in college, but is expelled before graduating, and has no good choices. She is befriended by neighbor Liz, a visiting professor who encourages Eva to make a new start and consider giving information to the FBI. Claire has little privacy in her home, full of staff, and her days are tightly scheduled with appearances for a family foundation while her husband is planning to run for the senate. Claire’s only free time is at a gym, where she meets with a high school friend. In this rollercoaster ride of a novel, I enjoyed the strong yet flawed female characters and the many plot twists, and found it very hard to put down. Readalikes include Layover by David Bell, Then She Was Gone by Lisa Jewell, The Switch by Joseph Finder and The Stranger in the Mirror by Liv Constantine.
Set against the backdrop of the 1960s and 1970s and the Vietnam War, Cooke follows the careers of several women who worked as stewardesses for Pan Am, which focused on international flights. Biology major Lynne Totten, experienced traveler Karen Walker, and Tori Werner, a Norwegian woman who wanted to work for the foreign service were all hired by Pan Am and sent to a six-week training course before getting assigned to flights around the globe. As they gained seniority, they could bid on their preferred flights and live abroad, from New York to Los Angeles to Hong Kong. Their perks included free air travel and paid vacations, with time for all-night parties or sightseeing. Later, some stewardesses sued Pan Am for the right to keep working after marriage and even during pregnancy during an era when new hires had to be slim, attractive, female, unmarried college graduates younger than 27. The author’s father worked for Pan Am until it went bankrupt in 1991, and the family traveled frequently on standby. At reunions for former flight crew, Cooke met and interviewed many retired stewardesses, and was fascinated by their stories. Most notable was an Operation Babylift flight that Tori Werner supervised as purser with Lynne and Karen as part of her crew, that brought orphaned and refugee infants and children to the United States from Vietnam. I would have liked a little less about politics and the Vietnam War and more stories about the other stewardesses mentioned, but I found this well-researched book to be an engaging read about a very challenging job that also allowed the women to expand their horizons.