I am a big fan of Barbara Kingsolver. Her novels, The Poisonwood Bible, The Bean Trees, and Pigs in Heaven, are all on my personal Top Ten list, so I was eager to read her latest fictional foray, Flight Behavior. I listened to the book on audio and, while it didn’t make my Top Ten, I enjoyed it very much.
Dellarobia, a young wife and mother in rural Tennessee, feels bored with her life and stuck by her circumstances. She is intelligent but missed her chance to go to college and escape her small town when she got pregnant in high school. She did the “right thing” and married her boyfriend, Cub Turnbow, and now they live on a small farm with two children, in the constant shadow of her in-laws. In an instant of bored frustration with her stilted life, Dellarobia decides to cheat on her husband with the young man in town who’s been flirting with her.
When Dellarobia climbs the mountain behind their farm for her illicit meeting, however, she is stopped in her tracks by an amazing sight: a valley that looks like it is on fire, every limb of every tree filled with bright orange butterflies. The stunning scene changes her mind – and her life – as she stumbles back home, unsure of what kind of miracle she has just witnessed. Word quickly spreads and tiny Featherton, TN – and Dellarobia, too –
become the center of international attention.
The monarch butterflies normally winter in Mexico, and even the experts are unsure what has brought them to this exact location, though they know that global warming is behind this unnatural behavior that may mean the demise of much of the monarch population. Ovid, a handsome and charismatic butterfly specialist, arrives from New Mexico to study the phenomenon, and Dellarobia becomes fascinated with both the science and the scientist.
It took me a little while to really get immersed in this book and its main character (perhaps in part because I was listening to the audio), but I ended up really caring for Dellarobia and wanting things to work out well for her. The title refers to both the study of the butterflies and Dellarobia’s own instinctive urges to get away, and the novel delves equally into both realms.
I have read that some reviewers feel that the book’s environmental message about the dire consequences of global warming is a bit heavy-handed, but I didn’t feel that way. In fact, I thought it was interesting that Kingsolver uses Dellarobia to tell another side of the story – the plight of poor, rural families who are barely making a living. There’s one startling scene in the novel when an environmental activist confronts Dellarobia with a list of things she can do to help the environment, and the actions are so far from the realm of her life that the activist is left speechless (actions like “Bring your own take-home containers to restaurants” – they haven’t eaten out in 2 years – or “Buy second-hand items instead of new” – they only buy second-hand and can’t afford anything new).
The story, though, is about much more than global environmental issues; it is about family and personal issues, too. As we read about Dellarobia’s heartbreaking past, her regrets, and her dreams, the global concerns are juxtaposed with a deeply-felt personal story. Kingsolver digs deep into Dellarobia’s soul, as she always does so well in her novels, and we come to know this character intimately – her thwarted dreams of doing something important with her life, her deep love for her children, and her ambivalence toward her husband.
The audio production was excellent, read by Kingsolver herself, who is originally from that region of the country. My only regret in listening instead of reading was that I couldn’t write down the many quotes I loved, where Kingsolver so perfectly described the experience of being a mother. I thoroughly enjoyed getting to know Dellarobia Turnbow and being immersed in the unfamiliar world of rural farming families, amidst the dual backdrops of natural beauty and a global crisis.
Listen to an audio sample at this link.
Listen to Barbara Kingsolver describe Flight Behavior: