So much fun that readers may be willing to tolerate the author’s twist-heavy conclusion.
Most thrillers either stealthily morph into procedurals or twist into such convoluted knots that their final chapters end up being the least enjoyable—or the most eye roll-inducing. For complex non-procedurals, this is more or less inevitable, because the sort of narrative momentum it takes to keep readers plowing through 300 pages requires more loose ends than can be tied up in a neat closing chapter. Chris Bohjalian’s The Flight Attendant doesn’t entirely escape this fate, but it’s better than most thrillers at keeping the end game tidy. And the way it crashes through the final act is so much fun that readers may be willing to tolerate the author’s twist-heavy conclusion.
Like every good thriller, The Flight Attendant starts with an irresistible premise: Cassie Bowden, a flight attendant working a transatlantic route from New York to Paris to Dubai, awakes in a lush hotel suite after a one night stand with a man she met on board. The catch? Her lover, Alex Sokolov, is dead, his throat cut from ear to ear. A notorious lush, Bowden remembers only fragments of the previous night and cannot be certain she was not the killer. Terrified of rotting in an Emirati prison if she reports the incident, she flees, assured that she can be back Stateside after working the return flight through Paris.
What ensues is a multi-pronged plot where Bowden is forced to confess in fits and starts, telling small pieces of the story to her union rep, her new lawyer and her most trusted colleague. The FBI seems unusually interested and, between the guilt of abandoning Sokolov’s corpse and the tightening investigation, Bowden comes to rely ever more on her predilection for finding solace in liquor bottles. And her behavior, which is not so great when she’s sober, goes over the edge when she’s drunk.
The reader quickly discovers that Bowden did not kill Sokolov, thanks to a second point of view narrative from Elena, who did. The assassin reverals a much bigger international spy conspiracy in which Bowden has unwittingly become implicated. While the various shadowy operators that Elena works with decide Bowden’s fate in dark corridors in Moscow, Dubai and New York, the flight attendant bumbles through the stresses of the situation completely ignorant of their attention.
The Flight Attendant is best when it is focuses on Bowden and her alcohol-soaked misadventures. She is a well-developed character and her travails are both realistic and relatable. The spy-conspiracy element may be entertaining, but it stretches plausibility, relying on several overlapping coincidences. Fortunately, Bohjalian and his editor(s) understand that Bowden and her proclivity for cocktails and casual sex is the heart of the book and spends the majority of the pages exploring her.
In the final act, the chapters get much shorter and all of the major characters find themselves tensely circling each other in Rome. Here is the final showdown, with a few crucial twists that do not have much meaning for readers more focused on Bowden. But the action sequences and the big reveals never stray into full-blown-cartoon levels, so it stays fun without running the book. For readers familiar with the international political thriller, that places it a bit above the average for the genre.