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Visible Empire by Hannah Pittard
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Visible Empire (edition 2018)

by Hannah Pittard (Author)

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559309,712 (2.81)None
Member:jtree
Title:Visible Empire
Authors:Hannah Pittard (Author)
Info:Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (2018), 288 pages
Collections:Your library
Rating:***1/2
Tags:Atlanta, plane crash, repercussions, Georgia, wealth, wife/husband, true story, art

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Visible Empire by Hannah Pittard

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Showing 1-5 of 9 (next | show all)
Visible Empire by Hannah Pittard is a story set around an actual 1962 plane crash in which over 100 of the Atlanta elite perished. However, the crash is the back drop, but then the book veers off into individual narratives of some who remained behind. At the heart of it, this book was not what I expected and not about what I expected. I might have enjoyed it more had the historical connection not been drawn.

Read my complete review at http://www.memoriesfrombooks.com/2019/01/visible-empire.html

Reviewed for NetGalley. ( )
  njmom3 | Jan 16, 2019 |
John F. Kennedy was in the White House and the whole country was living in the era of Camelot. The Civil Rights Movement was going strong although racial tensions continued to boil, often hidden, especially in Southern cities. Atlanta's upper class lived just as they always had until the shocking day that an Air France plane loaded with wealthy art patrons from their city crashed in Paris, decimating the movers and shakers of white society and opened doors for outsiders brave enough to walk through them past the smoldering wreckage of life before. Hannah Pittard uses this real life crash as the starting point for her novel, Visible Empire, about those left behind in the immediate aftermath of the tragic news.

The mayor of Atlanta and his wife, a pregnant woman whose parents perished on the plane and her journalist husband, whose mistress also died that day, a young black man hoping to better himself either educationally or by whatever means necessary, and a white working class woman who takes the opportunity to impersonate the relative of a reclusive member of society all take turns narrating the novel as the days after the crash pass in a blur of heat and rising tension. The loss of so many of the city's affluent social leaders gives a sort of manic and surreal feel to the grieving city, exposing undreamed of opportunities for the suppressed, the ambitious, and the dissipated.

Pittard has drawn a wealthy Atlanta that still exists in many ways and she has captured the racism that continues to stalk its streets as well but she's done it through a collection of less than likable, not always well fleshed out characters. The narrative started out strong in the immediate aftermath of the crash with the reeling disbelief of the survivors at home but veered into melodrama and chaos. She raises provocative issues of class and race, privilege and prejudice, but doesn't really get into the deep end with them, allowing the narration to turn away before it really addresses anything deeply. The community impact is clear and the personal impact is especially well explored. Perhaps there's just too much going on to allow for one story line to dominate and really matter; there's racism, classism, grief, infidelity, and more. The novel was rather oddly unemotional as it exposed the always cracked (but skillfully hidden) and now broken veneer of Atlanta's high society. And yet, despite my reservations, I didn't dislike the book. I didn't necessarily like it either. Pittard is skilled with words but maybe needs to find a little more heart, at least in this one. ( )
1 vote whitreidtan | Nov 29, 2018 |
Based on a true event, I was initially intrigued by the premise of the Air France airline crash and how the city would cope with the loss of so many movers and shakers. Unfortunately, the people impacted would probably have been just as messed up and the back and forth narrative didn't do much for learning a lot about them. It was provocative in the issues of race--the early 60's in Atlanta isn't a time of complete calm. ( )
  ethel55 | Sep 11, 2018 |
received a digital ARC of this book from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt on NetGalley. I’m grateful to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt for their generosity and am happy to post this honest review. All opinions are my own.

Foundation/Synopsis
The foundation of Visible Empire is the 1962 fatal crash of an Air France jet transporting 121 of Atlanta’s art patrons—the wealthy, white, upper-crust of the city. From there, Pittard builds her tale of those left behind—the grieving remainder of the muckety-mucks, the white serving class, and the subjugated black population of the city. From here we meet Roger, grieving the loss of his mistress and parents-in-law; Lily, reeling from the double-yet-different-losses of her parents and Roger; Piedmont, an African-American youth pulled into Robert and Lily’s orbits at a time of upheaval in his own life; and Stacy, a white serving class woman who sees an opportunity and takes it.

Invisible and Visible Empires
The title Visible Empire is actually a nod to the full name of the Ku Klux Klan—the Invisible Empire of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. If the Invisible Empire of the KKK is the shadowy, hooded phantoms that move at night, the overt racism of 1962 Atlanta is the Visible Empire. It is the status quo of wealth and privilege that is ignored until tragedy literally falls from the sky. Black men and women were beaten and died every day in the South in the 1960s and no one batted an eye. Over one hundred white people from Atlanta die, and suddenly the world is watching.

Pittard makes her intentions clear in the quotes she chooses for her Epigraph, including the two quotes I started this review with. The loss is seen as monumental to the city—The New York Times runs articles on this great loss and its impact to the city. In contrast at the time, The New York Times hadn’t once run an article on the massive loss of black life in the city in the preceding years. While most of us see the KKK as extremist and wrong, far fewer examine the status quo of white privilege that sees the loss of one hundred white lives as catastrophic and the poisoning of hundreds of black lives in Flint, Michigan as old news. Visible Empire was set in 1962 but in many regards could be set today.

Characters
The story is presented through a series of alternating character vignettes. Robert is a journalist, embroiled in an affair with a younger colleague who was on the doomed flight. Lily is Robert’s wife, pregnant with her and Robert’s first child, sent reeling at the loss of her parents and her abandonment by Robert. Intersecting with their story is that of Piedmont, an eighteen year-old black youth on the precipice of identity—faced with the choice of whether he will accept the status quo, keep his head down, and stay safe or whether he will stand and fight, link arms with other black men and women in the south saying that they have had enough. Finally there is Stacy, a character whose story is only tangentially connected to the Robert-Lily-Piedmont narrative. Stacy has grown tired of her hardscrabble life, believes she deserves more, and takes an opportunity to impersonate one of the left-behind upper class Atlantians.

Robert
Robert’s character is interesting—when I sat down to describe him, I can only come up with negative descriptors—he’s the epitome of white privilege, married into money, selfish, and willing to throw away everything—and yet—of course!—because he’s white, his bad choice roosters don’t really come home to roost. I should hate him. At times I did. But damn it, Pittard make me want the best for him. There’s something about him that made me want him to stop throwing everything he had away, to stop making bad choices, and to set things right.

Lily
Much like her name, Lily is the pure white character in the book. She’s the virtuous, wronged woman, the woman in need of rescue. While she’s one of the muckety-muck class, her tragedy makes her sympathetic and her treatment of Piedmont shows the reader that she’s not really like one of them. Lily is perhaps the most trope-y of the characters, acting her part as the damsel in distress. When Robert leaves, Lily starts to learn to stand on her own. Though Piedmont quickly enters her life and she gets another man she can lean on. I’m torn on whether I think she ultimately learned to stand on her own or just switched out her men. She’s likeable and it’s clear Pittard made an effort to make her seem independent. I’m just not entirely sure it worked. Where Piedmont became a vehicle to present Lily to the reader, in many ways Lily served that role for Robert. I had no problems with Lily as I was reading and was sympathetic to her and what she was going through; yet the longer I sit with the book, I’m not sure I really got to know her.

Piedmont
Pittard is a white author and I’m a white reader so my ability to analyze the characterization of Piedmont, the only black main character, is limited. With that said, of all the characters, Piedmont seemed the most well-rounded to me and was my favorite character. Where Roger’s wrestling with who he is as a man reeks of privilege and self-pity, Piedmont’s exploration of what it means to be a black man coming of age in 1962 Atlanta seemed real and drew me in. The choices he makes are understandable, though often unwise (so, fairly typical of an eighteen year-old). And yet, as a reader you still root for him. When he stands on his own or interacts with Roger, he is at his strongest. When he interacts with Lily, he faded a bit for me—partially as a consequence of Pittard using his interactions with Lily to provide opportunities for growth for her. I want the best for him and though I recognize he is simply a fictional character, there’s a part of me that hopes wherever he is, he turned out ok.

Stacy
Distinct from the Lily-Robert-Piedmont story line is that of Stacy/Anastasia. I have to admit that I hated her character, though this seems intentional on the part of Pittard. Stacy has a sympathetic enough backstory to give her a likeable dimension, though the choices she makes reveal fairly quickly that her brother’s accusation of her narcissism is accurate. Just when I was at the point of thoroughly hating her, there’s an unexpected twist in her story. She goes from being the con artist to the mark. This created a conundrum for me—I didn’t like her as a character, I felt sorry for her victim; but then these roles shifted. Stacy’s entire storyline, while intersecting with Lily-Robert-Piedmont enough that it didn’t feel entirely disparate, stood alone. It raised questions of who we consider victims and who we consider perpetrators. It introduced a “poor white” element to the story that was otherwise missing within the exploration of rich Atlanta’s relationship with its black population.

My major issue with Stacy’s storyline is the treatment of the two LGBTQ characters who appear in Stacy’s chapters. We are given enough background to see how they came to be the way they are (which isn’t to say how they came to be gay, but how they came to be the kind of people who make the kind of choices they make). Neither is portrayed particularly kindly and both are villains in their own rights—this negative portrayal felt stereotypical to me. An LGBTQ character can absolutely be a villain in your book; however, if you’re going to have negative gay characters, it feels like you should damn well include at least one virtuous one. To Pittard’s credit, everyone in this book is behaving badly except Piedmont and arguably Lily so it’s not like the only evil characters are gay; yet this treatment still felt unbalanced.

Recommended
Ultimately, I do think the point Visible Empire attempts to make is an important one. The book is well-written and it moves at a good pace—my dislike of Stacy made her chapters feel long at times, though this had more to do with my feelings for the character than it did with missteps in Pittard’s writing. Pittard is obviously skilled at making you feel strongly about her characters—I rooted for Robert while being exasperated with him and thinking he did not deserve my affection. I felt sorry for Stacy at the same time I would never want to actually meet her in real life. Visible Empire isn’t going to make my top ten list for the year but if you are interested in historical fiction and/or books that explore racial themes that still apply, I do think it is worth your time. It is one I would recommend for someone looking for a book that reads a bit lighter in writing style but packs a message and for book clubs, since I think this book will draw a diversity of opinions.

Notes
Published: June 5, 2018 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (@hmhbooks)
Author: Hannah Pittard (@hannahpittard)
Date read: May 22, 2018
Rating: 4 stars

Find more reviews at http://lisaannreads.com ( )
  ImLisaAnn | Aug 9, 2018 |
There are times when I’m reading Hannah Pittard’s work that I am enthralled. I’m pulled into the language, the atmosphere, and the emotion. I’m feeling everything and it’s unrelenting. During these moments, the characters are alive. The story becomes all that matters. There’s no escape. And I’m glad, because regardless of how difficult the subject matter is, the fact is, I’m feeling something strong, and that’s what I want out of a good book: to feel. I want the rage and the sorrow unabated (though it must be genuine and true to the story).

Then there are times when I’m reading Pittard’s work and I feel nothing. The language is stilted. The characters become caricatures of their former selves. And the story drowns in melodrama.

I like to think of any artist as they are at their best. Every artist has made a stinker or two, or ten. No artist is consistently amazing. At her best, Pittard is brilliant, and I continue to sing her praises. Hannah Pittard is a truly fabulous writer. The difference between her and many of the other authors I admire, however, is that Pittard doesn’t have that one stellar work, nor does she have those which are entirely without merit. Each and every one of her books shows both the artist’s greatest skills and her weaknesses. Visible Empire is perhaps the best example of this, as it swings most widely from one extreme to the other.

Visible Empire purports to be a novel about the 1962 Air France flight that crashed during take-off, killing all 122 passengers. At the time, it was the deadliest single-aircraft disaster. Most of the passengers were from Atlanta's upper society and were patrons of the Arts. But the crash is only the catalyst for the rest of the novel. Visible Empire is more about those left behind, a commentary on grief, affluence, and race. Primarily, the narrative focuses on four or five characters, though others are included as needed to fill in the gaps. Some of these stories work together and build upon one another; others don't seem to add much, but do provide a little more variety.

In particular, the first couple hundred pages of Visible Empire are really the strongest. Pittard's description of the crash itself and of the character's in the first stages of grief were phenomenal. But by the end, the story really dips into made-for-tv melodrama. At the conclusion, I didn't feel all the pieces connected in a satisfying manner.

If you can look past these flaws, I think Pittard is a wonderful author who has so much to offer. And maybe I shouldn't think of them as flaws; perhaps this is exactly how Pittard intends to write. The problem with this style is that I think it must be tough to find the right audience: it's too literary for the Hallmark crowd, too sensationalized for the New York Times crowd. Whatever side of the aisle Pittard eventually sits in, I'll keep turning to her work, looking for those moments of brilliance. ( )
  chrisblocker | Aug 5, 2018 |
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"It's a humid summer day when the phones begin to ring: disaster has struck. Air France Flight 007, which had been chartered to ferry home more than one hundred of Atlanta's cultural leaders following a luxurious arts-oriented tour of Europe, crashed shortly after takeoff in Paris. In one fell swoop, most of the city's wealthiest residents perished. Left behind were children, spouses, lovers, friends, and a city on the cusp of great change: the Civil Rights movement was at its peak, the hedonism of the 60s was at its doorstep...Mayor Ivan Allen is tasked with the job of keeping the city moving forward. Nineteen-year-old Piedmont Dobbs, who had been denied admission to an integrated school, senses a moment of opportunity. Robert, a newspaper editor, must decide if he can reconnect with his beloved but estranged wife, Lily, who has learned that her wealthy parents left her penniless. Visible Empire is the story of a single sweltering summer, and of the promise and hope that remains in the wake of crisis. It's the story of a husband and wife--Robert and Lily--who don't truly come to understand each other and their love, until their city's chaos drives them to clarity"--… (more)

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