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Visible Empire: Book summary and reviews of Visible Empire by Hannah Pittard

Visible Empire

by Hannah Pittard

Visible Empire by Hannah Pittard X
Visible Empire by Hannah Pittard
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  • Published May 2019
    304 pages
    Genre: Literary Fiction

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Book Summary

An epic novel—based on true events—of love, grief, race, and wealth, charting a single sweltering summer in Atlanta that left no one unchanged.

On a humid summer day, the phones begin to ring: disaster has struck. Chateau de Sully, a Boeing 707 chartered to ferry home more than one hundred of Atlanta's most prominent citizens from a European jaunt, crashed in Paris shortly after takeoff. It is the second-deadliest disaster in the history of aviation. Overnight, the city of Atlanta changes.

Left behind are children, spouses, lovers, and friends faced with renegotiating their lives. Robert, a newspaper editor, must decide if he can reconnect with his beloved but estranged wife, whose swindler parents have left her penniless. Nineteen-year-old Piedmont Dobbs, recently denied admission to an integrated school, senses a moment of uncertain opportunity. And Mayor Ivan Allen is tasked with the job of moving Atlanta forward—the hedonism of the 60s and the urgency of the Civil Rights movement at his city's doorstep.

Visible Empire is the story of a husband and wife who can't begin to understand each other until chaos drives them to clarity. It's a story of the promise and hope that remain in the wake of crisis.

Published in hardcover in 2018

Please be aware that this discussion guide will contain spoilers!
  1. While the details of the Orly plane crash are factual, in Visible Empire Hannah Pittard fictionalizes the lives of Atlanta's residents affected by the crash. What do you make of this balance between fact and fiction? And, do you find that the artistic liberties Pittard takes help you better understand the historical resonances of this catastrophic event?
  2. Pittard offers us many perspectives—including the collective voice, "everyone"—but she centers the narrative around Robert, Piedmont, Anastasia, and Ivan & Lulu. Why do you think she chooses these characters to drive the story?
  3. On the day of the plane crash, Piedmont is at work and watches the black-and-white footage of the wreckage on the small TV above the counter....

You can see the full discussion here. This discussion will contain spoilers!

Some of the recent comments posted about Visible Empire:

"Aha Moments" for the book's title
Besides what acstrine said above, with which I agree, the book's title struck me from the beginning as appropriate--it was a very "visible empire" kind of thing that all these prominent Atlantans could afford to go on such an expensive--even in 1962-... - juliaa

Are you familiar with Atlanta? If so, what is your perception of the city?
I spent a week in Atlanta on business and another three days years later on a different kind of business. My perception was that like most, if not all, big cities, Atlanta is a place of contrasts. It has good and bad, rich and poor, educated and not ... - juliaa

Did you feel sympathy for Robert despite everything? Did your feelings about him change over the course of the novel?
I did not feel sympathy for Robert. His troubles were all of his own making. He needed to be more honorable in his actions early on. - djcminor

Have you ever experienced a tragic event that made you behave in ways that were out of character for you, such as the way Robert behaves after the crash?
In hindsight, I'm not sure that what I considered "tragedies" at the time, were really tragedies at all. During my most profound moments of sadness during loss, i mourned for what I didn't do when I had the opportunity or what I didn't have in a ... - acstrine

Have you ever misjudged or underestimated someone the way that Anastasia misjudged Genie?
I think we have all misjudged people, but as the others commented, not to this extreme. I still have my childhood friend. We were friends from the time we were 4 years old. While in therapy a few years ago I realized throughout our children she had ... - Maggie

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Media Reviews

An Indie Next List Pick
An Amazon Editors' Pick for Summer Fiction
One of iBooks "Summer's Most Anticipated Books"
Belletrist Book Club's June Book of the Month
A New York Times Book Review "New & Noteworthy" Selection
An O, the Oprah Magazine "Top Book of Summer"
A Town & Country "Best Book to Read This June"
A Southern Living "Best New Book of Summer"
A Bitter Southerner "Upcoming Southern Novel We Can't Wait to Read"
A Refinery29 "Quick Beach Read Practically Written For Weekend Getaways"
A Globe and Mail "Coolest Book of the Season"
A Publisher's Lunch "Highly Anticipated" Title

"Captivating...[Pittard] brings her kaleidoscopic perspective to a catastrophe on an epic scale...With her keen eye for social markers and a deft weave of intersecting storylines, Pittard exposes social fissures and tensions over race and class, and how power and privilege play out in the shadows of grief." - Los Angeles Times

"Pittard's novel combines a sense of personal loss and turmoil with greater societal change as the civil rights movement arrives at its peak." - New York Times Book Review

"Pittard's earlier novels [...] established her as a formidable writer. The prose in Visible Empire [...] remains assured, polished, readable, and she renders a 1962 Atlanta that is vivid and just-enough interconnected. Ultimately, Pittard shoulders the burden of history with responsibility and resolve, and a brave imagination." - Atlanta Journal-Constitution

"On June 3, 1962, a flight carrying more than 100 of Atlanta's wealthiest residents crashed on takeoff from Paris. Pittard's kaleidoscopic novel, a fictionalized account of that disaster and its aftermath, illuminates the personal and communal grief (and, in some cases, wicked delight) of those left behind." - O, the Oprah Magazine, "Top Books of Summer"

"The writing throughout is masterful, bringing this turbulent time in local history to living, breathing life. A triumph." - Toronto Star

"Beautiful…In Pittard's masterful hands, the intricately woven plots and personalities that make up Visible Empire are relatable and corporeal...Pittard's command of voice is so dexterous and adroit…it takes an author of [her] caliber, finesse and nuance to articulate such a complicated place and time as Atlanta in the 1960s." - ArtsATL

"In 1962, Air France Flight 007 crashed upon takeoff and all 122 passengers - a group of prominent Atlanta citizens taking an inaugural jaunt on a route from Paris to Georgia - died. In this, the latest novel from Listen to Me author Hannah Pittard, that real-life crash kicks off a fictional series of events that changes a city and its people forever." - Town & Country

"Pittard's excellent novel fictionalizes the tragic true event that changed the lives of so many Atlantans." - Refinery29

"With the captivating Visible Empire, [Pittard] brings her kaleidoscopic perspective to a catastrophe on an epic scale...With her keen eye for social markers and a deft weave of intersecting storylines, Pittard exposes social fissures and tensions over race and class, and how power and privilege play out in the shadows of grief." - National Book Review

"Remarkable…There's a really surprising range in the characters' experiences and in what [Pittard] explores…Well-researched and deeply considered." - BookRiot, "All the Books"

"Visible Empire has made several best-of-summer-reads lists, but it's more than a cottage companion. Its theme alone - that staggering chaos can serve to bring clarity to life, that the least of us can find our path again - makes it a read to be remembered and shared." - Winnipeg Free Press

"Based on the true story of Air France flight 007 – which crashed after takeoff in Paris en route to Atlanta in 1962 – Visible Empire is a tensely wound novel that follows the shock waves of this forgotten air disaster across a hot, humid summer. The plane was a charter, chock full of Georgia's biggest names in the arts, the manifest of the fallen a who's who list in Atlanta society. Grief rises like a miasma over Hannah Pittard's fourth novel, but it's also a love story of sorts, centred around newspaperman Robert and his estranged wife Lily, unexpectedly left penniless after the death of her wealthy parents in the crash." - Globe and Mail, "46 Coolest Books to Read this Summer" 

"Atlanta native Pittard fills the novel with historical details, local points of reference, and distinct examinations of race and class...making it an evocative and discussion-worthy choice for readers who appreciate vivid settings." - Booklist

"Visible Empire starts out as an examination of a mass tragedy and slowly morphs into something more intimate and revelatory. Hannah Pittard's novel is a deeply resonant portrait of individuals - and a city - in the throes of grief, and on the cusp of momentous change." - Tom Perrotta, author of Mrs. Fletcher and Little Children
"Hannah Pittard is fast becoming one of the best writers of her generation, fusing the best aspects of literary and commercial fiction. Read her now, and thank me later." - Tom Franklin, author of Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter

This information about Visible Empire was first featured in "The BookBrowse Review" - BookBrowse's membership magazine, and in our weekly "Publishing This Week" newsletter. Publication information is for the USA, and (unless stated otherwise) represents the first print edition. The reviews are necessarily limited to those that were available to us ahead of publication. If you are the publisher or author and feel that they do not properly reflect the range of media opinion now available, send us a message with the mainstream reviews that you would like to see added.

Any "Author Information" displayed below reflects the author's biography at the time this particular book was published.

Reader Reviews

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The Book Whisperer Examines Visible Empire
Many novels are based on real events. Hannah Pittard has taken the tragedy of a plane crash, 3 June 1962, in Paris that killed 103 of “Atlanta’s wealthiest residents” and created Visible Empire, a novel. The plane crashed on takeoff. The Atlanta residents on board were art patrons who had been on a month-long tour of art galleries across Europe. They had returned to Paris and following an evening of partying they were on their way home the next day. In all 130 people died in the crash which was caused by a mechanical failure. At the time, it was the worst single airplane crash recorded.
For The Atlanta Journal Constitution, on 5 June 2018, Mandi Albright wrote “Atlanta Arts Patrons Die in 1962 Paris Plane Crash,” an article looking back on the terrible accident.
Pittard has published four other novels. Visible Empire has received a number of honors including the following: an Amazon Editors' Pick for Summer Fiction, an IndieNext List Pick, a New York Times "New and Noteworthy" Selection, an O Magazine Book of Summer, and one of Southern Living's Best New Books of Summer. Her previous novels also received high praise and awards. Discover more about Pittard and her work on her Web site. Currently, she leads the MFA program in creative writing at the U of KY.
Visible Empire employs the use of different voices to tell the story. This ploy annoys some readers, but I like the added perspective it gives readers. Instead of an omniscient narrator or a single narrator, Pittard gives readers five characters who tell the story of the crash’s impact and the deaths of those on board on those left behind in Atlanta.
The book opens with Robert’s story. Immediately, I found Robert to be an unsympathetic character. He learns his in-laws have died in the Paris crash. His mind, however, is on the death of another passenger on board, a young woman named Rita. Rita, a journalist, works with Robert and they have been having an affair for over a year. Meanwhile, Robert’s wife Lily is seven months into what is becoming a difficult pregnancy. Robert is also in debt and drinking heavily. So what does Robert do---and this information is no spoiler since it occurs in the first chapter—but leave his pregnant, vulnerable wife on the day she learns her parents have died in Paris.
Other narrators include Piedmont Dobbs, a young Black man; Lily, Robert’s wife; Anastasia, a grifter; Coleman, a wealthy n’er-do-well and drug addict; and Skylar, Anastasia’s newly reunited twin brother. Additionally, short chapters of one or two pages feature Ivan and Lulu, Atlanta’s mayor and his wife. Those short chapters are interspersed throughout the book.
All of these characters find themselves interwoven into a story beyond their control. Piedmont, Anastasia, and Skylar are unknown to the other characters until the accident. Their addition to the story completes the narrative. Without them, Visible Empire would be the story of wealth and privilege as well as loss. Yet, 1962 is a critical time in Atlanta and the US because of integration and racial unrest.
All of the narrators have stories to tell. Their stories all relate in one way or another to the plane crash because without it, all of these people would not come together.

shannon leonetti

good but not great
Visible Empire opens on a humid summer day in 1962 when a Boeing 707, chartered to ferry home more than one hundred of Atlanta's most prominent citizens from a European jaunt, crashes in Paris shortly after takeoff. Overnight, the city of Atlanta changes. Gone are some of the most popular and powerful residents of the city. Left behind are children, spouses, lovers and friends faced with renegotiating their lives.

Hannah Pittard's latest novel fictionalizes a tragic but true event. She sets up a what-if tale of the aftermath of a mass tragedy that engulfs an entire community. It is the story of how a group a Atlantans are forced to respond and recover. It is a story of loss and how, when you lose something, your worldview is put to a real test. And, it is a story set in a fascinating time in United States history when Atlanta is already on the cusp of change with the urgency of the civil rights movement at its doorstep.

Pittard is an excellent, capable writer. We see her ability when she puts us right in the center of the chaos that remains in the wake of the crash. That sense of dread, denial and unknowing can be felt right along with the survivors as they learn the truth about what has happened. Visible Empire has the power to make us shiver but it never rises to its full potential. Pittard doesn't hold that tension level and she loses strength of her story as the number of characters grows. Missing is that magic of historical fiction when it creates a texture of lived experience, when it activates the senses and deepens the reader's engagement through feeling.

Visible Empire could have been a great novel. It had so many opportunities to do this and it just doesn't happen. Instead, the horror of the tragedy deteriorates into a TV soap opera with characters that never blossom into life. The focus is on Robert, Piedmont, Anastasia, Lily and Lulu. Robert, loses his mistress in the crash and copes with his loss by leaving his pregnant wife, Lily. Lily loses her parents in the crash and, in the aftermath, she loses her husband and her inheritance. Seriously?

Similarly, the plot, craving to be a meaningful piece of historical fiction only superficially touches on the important issues of segregation, Civil Rights, economic and social class, and family. If Pittard had picked only one of these issues and placed them in a larger historical context, her readers would have learned something much more significant about life and its options in 1962. All the pieces are there but Pittard never puts them together.

There were too many characters. I found myself wishing we could spend more time with certain characters and less (or no) time on others. For example, Piedmont Dobbs was one character I saw as having real potential. He is a young black man, a product of the dangerous times faced by Negroes in 1962 America. The civil rights movement had already begun and he is haunted by Emmett Till but instead of letting him grow, Pittard turns him into a shallow caricature.

If I could ask the author one question, it would be what was her novel about. Was was it about a plane crash in France where more than one hundred of Atlanta's wealthiest citizens perished or was it about infidelity, interracial romance or race relations in Atlanta?   Regardless, the plot spiraled away from the incident, and into the corners of the lives of the people left behind – and not in an intriguing way.

While Visible Empire is a work of historical fiction many of its themes continue to be timely and important. Sadly, the book disintegrated (along with the plane) and never gave its audience anything meaningful.

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Author Information

Hannah Pittard Author Biography

Photo: Joe Wigdahl

Hannah Pittard is the author of four novels and a forthcoming memoir. Her books have been recommended by the New York Times; Chicago Tribune; O, The Oprah Magazine; Time; The Guardian; The Washington Post; Belletrist; Powell's Indie Subscription Club; The Indie Next List; and the Signed First Edition Club at Harvard Bookstore. She is a winner of the Amanda Davis Highwire Fiction Award, a Macdowell Colony fellow, and a graduate of Deerfield Academy, the University of Chicago, and the University of Virginia. She also spent some time at St. John's College in Annapolis. She is a professor of English at the University of Kentucky and lives in Lexington with her boyfriend and step-daughter.

Author Interview
Link to Hannah Pittard's Website

Other books by Hannah Pittard at BookBrowse
  • The Fates Will Find Their Way jacket
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