Barbara Kingsolver is a reader’s writer. Even when a particular book is not one of my all-time favorites, like this one, I’m always “with” Kingsolver and enjoy her sentences, the rhythm of the unfolding story, the observations she makes of her character’s inner worlds (especially her women), and the way she incorporates the natural world/current events. There is typically something relatable about Kingsolver’s characters. I suspect that many that many middle age, American women read her for that very quality.
Interestingly, the main character of Flight Behavior is sort of the antithesis of what I’ve just described–at least on the surface. Dellarobia Turnbow is a dirt poor farm wife in rural Tennessee, stuck in a shotgun wedding with a basically decent but kind of dumb farmer husband, two kids, some annoying redneck relatives, and a heap of regret. She’s bored, unhappy, unchallenged, and unusually self-aware. Despite a lack of any quality formal education, she’s sharp and able to narrate with an awareness of her social confines just perfectly for more educated city folk like me, her reader. This is Kingsolver’s trick in this novel—to paint the story of a very conservative rural way of life, community, and viewpoint, while making the characters sympathetic to an undoubtedly more varied audience. She does it, but sometimes struggles.
Kingsolver spends a lot of time developing Dellarobia and her inner world. We know she is in the wrong marriage, although she does care about her husband and certainly her children. When we first meet her, she is hiking up the side of her family’s mountain behind their farm for an adulterous assignation with some hot young dude that has captivated her with his attention. To Dellarobia’s huge credit, she does not go through with the meeting (she is overcome by the sight of a huge mass of overwintering monarch butterflies that seems to her, at the time, to be an act of god/nature that wakes her up from ruining her life). Kingsolver makes it clear that this temptation has happened to Dellarobia over and over, and sometimes I found her repetitiveness on this and other aspects of Dellarobia’s life ponderous. At certain points, I wanted to say–okay Barbara, I get it, let’s edit this out and move on.
Still, perhaps Kingsolver felt she really needed to emphasize Dellarobia’s attractions and temptations in order to make sure the reader understood that this was ultimately the way that Dellarobia achieves change and self realization. After the news breaks that a huge colony of monarch butterflies has chosen this unlikely spot to overwinter, a very different person enters Dellarobia’s world. He is a scientist and she finds herself attracted to him, though this attraction is less clearly sexual. Certainly, Ovid (the scientist) is not coming on to her, but she doesn’t really have an equivalent understanding of her attraction to him other than a sexual one for quite a while. Ultimately she realizes that she is attracted to what Ovid represents–education and the need to find a more fulfilling life for herself.
As usual, Kingsolver wraps her entire tale around an issue or topic in nature. Flight Behavior is about the plight of global warming and its impact on species, like the especially vulnerable colonies of monarch butterflies that migrate annually and traditionally winter over in huge colonies in Mexico. In the real world, these butterflies are under duress, from agrobusiness that eradicates their one food source, the milkweed plant, and more generally, huge climatic changes that have decimated their roosting sites and interrupt their migratory cycles. I always enjoy Kingsolver’s biology lessons threaded throughout her books–even if they are the sad ones of the terrible impact of we humans on the creatures and processes of this lovely planet.
Plant milkweed in your garden! Ride your bike! And read more Barbara Kingsolver!
The Goldfinch PM
I read 1/3 of the way through the Goldfinch and finally decided that I had to stop. I have a feeling that things never get better for Theo, and it made me too sad. I would find myself overome with anxiety when I thought about picking up the book, and I couldn’t get it out of my head between readings. Tartt is another glorious writer, and I read somewhere that she said she writes books like ones she’d like to read (perhaps all authors do). But the story makes me wonder if she is a mother. Ever since my son was born, there are just some stories about parent/child loss that I cannot read or see movies of. I’ll add the Goldfinch to that list. It was even more poignant for me that when the novel opens and Theo’s mother is killed, he is 13, the same age as my dorky, sweet boy. I cringed over and over while reading of his loss and couldn’t stop imagining how sad it would make me if my son were in the same circumstances. Also, I hated Theo’s father—could not figure out why/how he and Theo’s mother were ever married. It seemed implausible to the extreme. By the time Theo was smoking dope and drinking his ass off with his miserable father and BFF Boris in Las Vegas and he was so malnourished and down and out that he needed vitamin shots from the school nurse, this mama was done.