Visible Empire

Pub Date:   |   Archive Date: 05 Jul 2018

Member Reviews

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 

Reviewed for NetGalley.
Was this review helpful?
This seemed to take the long way around to get to being even part of the story that was detailed on the fly leaf. 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.
Was this review helpful?
A beautifully written, hard-to-classify book, about a moment in time in Atlanta when the city suffered an unspeakable loss. 

It is 1962, and things are changing socially, culturally, and politically, and then, thousands of miles away in Paris, a plane falls from the sky. The connection between this tragedy and the lives of several disparate but interconnected people, white and Black, wealthy and poor. Hannah Pittard has a unique voice that reminds me of William Makepeace Thackeray, but with a modern flair. It’s a mix of satire and dead-serious that’s hard to define or pigeonhole. But I liked it; I liked it a lot.

There were also some stunningly insightful moments, like when the author got into the head of Peidmont, a young Black man who has his hope that he is destined for great things dampened. Pittard’s descriptions of how he views race and race relations were astute for someone who (forgive me for saying this) is about as far removed from a young Black man in a segregated world as a hippo is from a gazelle. I respect this author’s skill, but also her empathy in her portrayal of this character.

Similarly, she portrayed an aging lesbian suddenly deprived of her financial security, a n’er do well playboy, an errant husband and a beautiful young wannabe actress with just as much care. Hannah Pittard is not a writer who was on my radar but she is now. Highly recommended for lovers of literary fiction.
Was this review helpful?
I 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.

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 Robert, grieving the loss of his mistress and parents-in-law; Lily, reeling from the double-yet-different-losses of her parents and Robert; 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.

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’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.

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.

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 Robert'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 Robert, 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.

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.

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.

Published: June 5, 2018 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (@hmhbooks)
Author: Hannah Pittard (@hannahpittard)
Date read: May 22, 2018
Rating: 4 stars
Was this review helpful?
The story of a plane crash and it's rippling effects on the victim's family and friends.  In this story we hear about the crash of a plane from Paris heading to Atlanta that was filled with prominent "Artsy" people but we don't actually witness the crash.  What we do witness is the devastating effects this crash has on the family and friends of crash victims.   There were characters I disliked but yet I found myself rooting for them.  Robert, whose mistress was on the plane, leaves his pregnant wife Lily.  Piedmont, a black boy who does some questionable things, but helps poor Lily in her time of need.  Anastasia tells a lie that turns into more than she can handle.  And how all these stories weave together is so compelling.  At each turn, I was drawn in to find out more.  There were more characters not to like or care for but there stories were equally important.  It was a dark look at how they all dealt with the loss of family/friends.
Was this review helpful?
Set against the backdrop of the Orly plane crash disaster, Pittard explores racial relations and marriage in 1960s Atlanta.   VISIBLE EMPIRE traces the "orphans" of those art patrons that were killed in the crash with skill and beauty.  The characters are interesting and believable and Pittard captures the era perfectly.  If you liked THE HELP, you will greatly enjoy VISIBLE EMPIRE.
Was this review helpful?
This book was always going to be right up my alley, as an Atlantan who is interested in our city's history. Like most Atlantans these days, I did not grow up here, so I didn't grow up learning about the city's history in school. In fact, I first heard about this plane crash in May while doing research for a story at the Swan House. I found it utterly fascinating, and with all historical fiction, it left me wondering which parts are absolutely true and which parts were heavily embellished. There were a ton of characters, which obviously I can't fully blame on the author since she didn't invent them, but that did make it tough to keep everyone straight sometimes. I cared a lot more for Lily, Robert and Piedmont's story than I did about Genie and Anastasia and the damn painting.
Was this review helpful?
Loved this book. A bit slow at first and it took a while to figure out how the characters were intertwined, but then it got me hooked. It reminded me of Gatsby
Was this review helpful?
I know many people have mixed feelings about fiction based on real life events, but I’m a fan! In Visible Empire, the Orly plane crash is the big event that ties lots of disparate people and perspectives together (and the opening chapters recounting the crash are riveting). The overall book is more a portrait of Atlanta in the 1960’s from all these different perspectives (the Mayor’s wife, family of the crash victims, an African American teenager that has a chance encounter with a member of Atlanta’s elite, and an ambitious young woman) than about the plane crash itself. Pittard gives us a somewhat gossipy take on the crash’s impact on Atlanta’s elite and those who come in contact with them…and her social commentary is excellent. I felt like this would be the book that Dominick Dunne (former Vanity Fair columnist and author of “fictional” novels about real life crimes involving the wealthy) could have written about the crash…and it reminded me of a less epic A Man in Full (by Tom Wolfe). But, I did miss the Afterward that normally accompanies these types of books that lays out where the author stayed true to real life and where she took liberties for the sake of the story.
Was this review helpful?
I was REALLY looking forward to reading Hannah Pittard”s new book Invisible Empire. Thanks to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and NetGalley, I received a copy in exchange for this honest review.

The book is based on the real-life crash of an Air France flight seconds into takeoff from Orly airport in Paris in 1962. 130 people died, and this backstory provides an amazing number of potential stories of  those on the flight as well as their families, friends, loved ones, etc. The characters in the book are 99% fictional (I looked it up, thinking this might be “faction.” )

During the early 60s, Atlanta was “in the midst of the Camelot era,” yet as a Southern city it was deeply involved in racial hatred and civil rights struggles. And although I didn’t think of the meaning of the title until it was pointed out to me (duh!), once I realized that the full title of the Klan is “The Invisible Empire Knights of the Ku Klux Klan,” I admit I was dreading something horrible happening to one of the African-American characters who figure prominently in the story. No spoilers here…

The victims of the crash included many of the city’s movers and shakers, as it was a chartered tour put on by and for art lovers of Atlanta. TBH, after reading the promotional material, I was expecting more of a story that covered the social, political and moral events of the 60s. It isn’t that: it is more a book that has “made-for-TV-movie” written all over it. Kind of a soap opera, wrapped in fascinating time and place. Doesn’t make it bad – it just was way less than I expected. Recognizing this may be due to my own unrealistic expectations, I give it three stars. (The cover deserves its own star: it's awesome)
Was this review helpful?
This book offers gritty insight into dynamics of race and gender in the South. Set in the early 1960s, the book uses the famous plane crash of Atlantan socialites as a backdrop. Told from rotating character/plot points, the book deftly ties seemingly unrelated storylines together. I appreciated the writing skill needed to interact with these complex storylines.
Was this review helpful?
This book was not at all what I expected.  I've read books by Hannah Pittard before and enjoyed them but I admit I found this one slow going.  The writing was good, and if she sought to make the characters all mostly unappealing, she achieved her goal.  It was just ok for me.
Was this review helpful?
As a fan of previous Hannah Pittard novels, I was excited to try her latest endeavor: a historical fiction novel about an actual plane crash that occurred in 1962 - a flight from France to Atlanta, that included many of the movers of shakers of the 1960s arts and entertainment world, and the aftermath of crash through the stories of those left behind. Pittard's writing is beautiful, as always, which is the only thing that kept me going through this novel; while I certainly appreciated all of the historical references, including a character who is struggling with the racial tension and white privilege of the South, I think I was expecting something different. Visible Empire is a very slow burn; it will be great for those who can disregard the plane crash and focus on a different narrative.
Was this review helpful?
In the emotional aftermath of the June 1962 Paris plane crash that killed 120 of Atlanta’s leading citizens, a chorus of grieving survivors tell tales of love and loss, even as their city -- often divided by class and race -- seeks to cope with change and uncertainty. 
Minneapolis Star Tribune 6/3/18
Was this review helpful?
This was a DNF for me. I tried multiple times and even made it 44% of the Book. The way the story was laid out jumped a bit much. Also, the development that far into the book was little.
Was this review helpful?
As a resident of Atlanta, I enjoy reading about my city. The aftermath of the Orly plane crash of 1962 is well-drawn in Elizabeth Masser’s Novel The Swan House, which, I think is a far better treatment of the topic of the crash, and of painting the city itself.
Was this review helpful?
Visible Empire is a sprawling novel following several individuals in 1962 Atlanta following the crash of an Air France flight bearing 120 people, most of the city’s wealthy upper-crust.

Newspaper reporter Robert and his young wife Lily are expecting their first child. The crash throws their lives into a tailspin: Robert must confront his unfaithfulness and its aftermath, and Lily is left to pick up the pieces after the death of her parents.

Piedmont Dobbs is an African-American high school student whose mother has dreamed of the opportunity for him to attend a white school. He is thrust in the middle of the roiling racial tensions and the drama and grief of those left picking up the pieces after the crash.

Anastasia is a young orphan with striking good looks. She has reinvented herself as a child of one of Atlanta’s wealthy travelers to France. The crash threatens to unravel her carefully crafted false identity.

Visible Empire is told in various points of view: Robert, Lily, Piedmont, Anastasia, and brief glances into the life of Ivan, the mayor, and his wife, Lulu. Their storylines intersect, sometimes directly, and sometimes in more indirect ways.

Although it was beautifully written and richly evocative of 1960s Atlanta with all its excess of the wealthy and tensions threatening to erupt, the novel felt a little empty to me. Several of the characters are extremely unlikeable, and I found myself frustrated and angry with them for much of the book. Several details are left unresolved at the book’s conclusion.

I can appreciate that this book is well-written and lovely, even if it wasn’t for me. For fans of literary fiction, like Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies, this would be an excellent read to bring on a plane or while you relax by the pool.
Was this review helpful?
Somehow the premise of this book, that cover and especially the fact that it's based on true events doesn't match its quality of writing.

I really wanted to like it. I kept pushing it back, savoring it for later. But then when I finally got to it...I couldn't even get into it.

I think there are people out there who like these kinds of books - very documentary-like but told in draggish story manner. Penny Vincenzi's books come to mind, for example. But for those of us who see that synopsis and expect some sort of thrill, mystery and maybe even slightly upmarket literary element, it falls flat, unfortunately.

Thank you NetGalley for this copy in exchange for my honest review.
Was this review helpful?
Not my favorite Hannah Pittard novel. The story starts with a plane crash in 1962 in Paris and we learn a little about those on board the plane. After the crash, the focus is learning more about those who were let behind - primarily a group of the haves, have nots, and used to haves in Atlanta in the early 60's.
It was a challenging book for me because I found most of the characters to be unlikable and it was difficult to read about the prejudices so solidly in place in that segment of Atlanta society. It might have been better had we been able to get to know those individuals who died in the crash a bit more, but I was happy I stuck with the book because the last quarter was my favorite of the book.
Thanks to Netgalley and HoughtonMifflinHarcourt for the opportunity to read Visible Empire.
Was this review helpful?
Loved the cover, loved the description, didn't love the book.
While I could totally enjoy this novel as a mini-series, it didn't work for me as a novel. It had a lot of promise- historical fiction based on a plane crash in 1962 and the survivors back home in Atlanta who are left to pick up the pieces of their new reality. After reading it, I wasn't sure it had much to do with the plane crash at all. You know those books that almost get it right? This one almost gets it right- but in the end it wasn't for me.
Was this review helpful?