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BOOK REVIEW / FICTION

Two 'What If ' Stories of a Famous Flier

I WAS AMELIA EARHART by Jane Mendelsohn; Knopf; $18, 146 pages

HIDDEN LATITUDES by Alison Anderson; Scribner; $21, 224 pages

July 04, 1996|SUSAN HEEGER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Good news, Amelia Earhart fans. This summer your elusive hero flies again in two recently published novels that can be knocked off in a couple of beach days. And I do recommend the beach.

Both are largely set on desert islands, the kind where palm trees sway and the only beverage comes in coconuts. Both are first novels that suggest that Amelia--who vanished in 1937 on a trans-world flight--didn't go down in a blast of fire but landed safely on some atoll with her navigator, Fred. That she and Fred, improbably, fell in love. And that's about all these two books have in common.

"I Was Amelia Earhart," by Jane Mendelsohn, is a brief, brilliant study in redemption, a meditation on love and loneliness that steers far away from mawkishness. In 146 quick pages, Mendelsohn keeps the focus on Amelia, the celebrated aviator, a woman trapped by the world's expectations and by a rotten marriage to a man who uses her to inflate himself. She's bored, exhausted, sick with longing. As a flier, she has no life beyond her public role--the tough beauty in a leather jacket, swinging carelessly from the cockpit with her nose powdered.

Later, as a castaway, she struggles to create herself. Who is the famous Earhart if her wings are clipped? If she's powerless against nature? If she and Fred--a gutless boozer who failed to keep them on course--are equals on an empty beach? The answer is, she's free. But it takes a while before she knows it. First, she and Fred must try frantically to be rescued--light bonfires, fix the plane, insult each other.

"I treat him more brutally than I've ever treated anyone," Amelia admits. Luckily, Fred bears up pretty well. When Amelia demands, "How did you get to be such a stinking drunk?" he calmly replies, "Two ways. Gradually and then suddenly." Which is exactly how their defenses fall away until eventually they fall together, two survivors who save each other from the "cold, ethereal strangeness of existence."

In an entirely different vein, Alison Anderson's "Hidden Latitudes" opens in 1979 with Amelia still island-bound, minus the late Fred, as a sailboat lurches into her lagoon.

On board are Lucy and Robin, a bickering, unhappy couple who have gone to sea to save their marriage. Like Amelia, they've lost their bearings and found the island by mistake, and for a few days they're stuck in the harbor while they make repairs.

Their dilemma: Robin wants a child, Lucy doesn't. Lucy wants to write; Robin would be grateful to fix the boat and get his wife's attention. On their cramped ship, they knock around uncomfortably while Amelia watches from the island. Curious, intrigued, she wonders if, after 40 years, she'll be rescued.

Will she approach them? Will they discover her? Does she really want to go back, a wild, white-haired octogenarian, to a world of people who won't remember her? Some minor suspense gathers around these questions in Amelia's first-person chapters, and in the alternating sections where we observe Lucy and Robin from a distance.

It's interesting at first to see how Anderson portrays Amelia after years of solitude and then contrasts her with pilgrims from the '70s. But very quickly the narrative is becalmed by the lack of real people and convincing details that drive plot.

The characters never rise above type. Amelia plays the benevolent crone, clucking at the young ones with the wisdom of age. Lucy is the whiny, withholding wife who tortures her husband for her own independence. Robin's the guy who in another age would have made a good crusader, finding meaning by throwing weapons at the enemy. Their interactions get old fast.

It doesn't help things when Anderson decides midway to spend 40 pages on Amelia's long-ago love affair with Fred. Their remembered scenes together ("You wonderful fool. . . ." "Oh silly man. . . ." "Guinevere to my Lancelot. . . .") have all the resonance of a dogeared romance novel.

Does the legendary Earhart really belong here? I suspect her fans would rather keep her in the waters of oblivion.

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