The High Flyer
by Susan Howatch
Published by Knopf
500 pages, 2000
Only One Way to Go
Reviewed by Linda L. Richards
Somewhere around page six of The High Flyer I stopped reading, closed the book and examined the cover again. More to the point, I carefully examined the author's name. And there it still was: Susan Howatch. I flipped to the back flap and looked over the author bio. And yes: it was that Susan Howatch: author of 18 other books including the international bestsellers Penmarric and The Wheel of Fortune. But it had to be checked, because it felt as though I'd inadvertently stumbled into a romance novel. While there's no crime in reading a romance novel now and again, it certainly wasn't what I'd been led to expect. I forged on, thinking that if Howatch had now turned to writing genre-style fiction, I'd best find that out for myself. Anyway, it was summer and a beach read might be just to my liking.
By the middle of the book, I was no more illuminated, but still more confused. I no longer thought it might be category romance, but just what the heck The High Flyer might be was no clearer. By then it felt as though it might be a suspense thriller or perhaps a novel of the occult, a bit of veiled religious propaganda or maybe even a mystery.
But all of this, of course, is practically signature Howatch. The ability to keep readers not just on the edge of their seats but even on the edge of understanding. The High Flyer does these things in spades.
The high flyer in question is Carter Graham, a beautiful and successful partner in a London law firm with a passion for order and a lifeplan that won't allow deviation. As the story begins, Carter has recently wed the man who seems to be her masculine equivalent. Kim Betts is a few years older, but he's an appropriately more successful lawyer than Carter, he's attractive, sexy and Carter has every reason to believe that his sperm count will be acceptable for her purposes: the lifeplan includes children by her late 30s and time is ticking on. You see where the romance inklings might come from?
The story is told from Carter's perspective and the earliest chapters of the book are nearly unreadable, so complete is Howatch's rendering of the quietly calculating Carter Graham that it's tough to like her at the start.
... I had decided Kim was capable of being the husband I had long wanted but had almost lost hope of finding. He fitted the ideal profile. He was successful enough to earn more money than I did.... He had the educational background to go everywhere and know everyone who needed to be known, yet at the same time he well understood what it was like to be an outsider on the make. He had no parents who might prove tiresome. His marriage was already ending so no one could accuse me of breaking it up, and there were no children to be deprived of a father. I had, of course, taken care to establish that the absence of children was not his fault; apparently something was wrong with Sophie's Fallopian tubes, and an operation to unblock them had failed. I felt sorry for her. But I also felt very relieved that the absence of children did not disqualify Kim from being my husband.
Carter carefully manages the courtship until Kim pops the question. Unfortunately it's around this time that his estranged wife gets wind of his intention to marry someone much younger than herself and begins to stalk Carter, apparently under the Christian banner by saying that she's trying to save the other woman from committing a mortal sin. Worse, from Carter's perspective, the ex indulges in delaying tactics which, if successful, will put Carter way off her lifeplan.
When the divorce is achieved and Carter's goal of marrying Kim has been attained, things look like smooth sailing. Carter feels like she's back on track and that, as usual, her own strong will and enough desire to achieve will put all things right. But not long into the marriage, things begin to get really odd. Little by little, Carter begins to discover some awful truths about her husband's past -- things that include Nazi links and his association with an odd, almost Satanic cult -- that make her wonder just who it is she married. Equally to her horror she discovers that Kim has no intention of siring children and, around the same time, Kim's ex-wife turns up dead under suspicious circumstances. Circumstances that imply Kim's involvement in her death and might even implicate Carter, herself.
Though these plot twists leave the reader reeling, it's an engrossing and invigorating tale. Howatch is writing about a woman devoid, really, of a spiritual life who suddenly finds it all around her. As Carter says early in the book, "... surely every rational person knows nowadays that there's no God, religion's a crutch for losers and truth which can't be scientifically proved in a laboratory is no truth at all?" These are words she'll have to eat later when she discovers that the only gods she's ever worshipped -- power and success -- can't sustain her and that what your eyes -- and a laboratory -- reveal to you are not always the whole or only truth. The result is not so much a story with religious overtones as much as one touched with the spiritual, in many angles and several forms.
Howatch's writing here is muscular and mature. This plus really well-honed characters and a tautly told story make The High Flyer a very tough book to put down. | July 2000
Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine and the author of the Madeline Carter novels: Mad Money, The Next Ex and Calculated Loss.