Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver

In the opening of Flight Behavior, Dellarobia climbs a mountain to escape her disappointing life when a vision halts her. The forrest appears to be burning but without heat. Unable to see clearly without her glasses, the young mother of two takes it as a sign to turn back. She returns to her unhappy marriage on a sheep farm where "her every possession was either unbreakable or broken." 

Only later is the miracle revealed to be a wayward flock of butterflies. Monarch Butterflies usually over-winter in Mexico, but in this novel, global warming has destroyed their old roost. Feathertown, Tennessee claims the visitation as a divine blessing, but scientist Ovid Byron sees the shift in migration as a symptom of a sick ecosystem. Barbara Kingsolver's imagery cleverly reflects her message:

"Dellarobia couldn't remember a sadder-looking November. The trees had lost their leaves early in the unrelenting rain. After a brief fling with coloration they dropped their tresses in clumps like a chemo patient losing her hair."

The media seizes the opportunity and poses redheaded Dellarobia as the Venus of the Butterflies. Hoping to rescue the Monarchs, Dellarobia applies for a job as Ovid's research assistant. His Caribbean background makes him exotic, but even more enticing is his faith in her intelligence. The savior in this tale is education; the villain is ignorance. The writing is so beautiful it soars:

"At dusk she and Ovid would climb together to the barn loft. They would stand in the open door of the haymow and take these butterflies in hand, one at a time, and toss them into the air. Some would crash. And some would fly."

Flight Behavior flutters with metaphors but is grounded in science. Earthy descriptions of sheep sheering, child rearing and field biology draw the reader into a real world ravaged by climate change. Scarily, this novel isn't set in a future dystopia but in Southern Appalachia right now. The November 6th release date follows eerily in the flooded wake of Sandy. At times the narrative is nearly overwhelmed by polemic or digresses into discount shopping centers, but the wonderful characters and gorgeous writing kept me turning the pages eagerly. The resolution was deeply satisfying.

Flight Behavior reminds me of Kingsolver's earlier novel Prodigal Summer in setting and in theme but with more heart and sympathy for the male characters. It also has better focus than her last novel, The Lacuna, which had disappointed me. This new book will please Kingsolver fans and make many new ones too.

Disclosure: I borrowed an ARC from a friend, but I'd like a hardcover copy for Christmas (kids: hint, hint.)

Click icon for more
book review blogs
@Barrie Summy

22 comments:

Rose said...

I have yet to read a Kingsolver novel, but you have definitely made this one sound like something I would enjoy, Sarah! Thanks for another great review.

pattinase (abbott) said...

She is a wonderful writer and I enjoy her books but this sort of eco-horror is too much for me now. Especially when I read articles that say it is too late, that the time to fix things is past.

Sarah Laurence said...

Rose, I can see you liking this one especially due to the farm setting and environmental themes.

Patti, it's not an eco-horror story, and I apologize if I gave that impression. The scientist, Ovid, is quite pessimistic, but Dellarobia delivers a message of hope. There's guidance on how we can all help to reduce our carbon footprint. At it's heart, though, it's a story of a woman's self discovery and growth.

Barrie said...

I think I've read every Kingsolver novel. ;) I'm looking forward to this one. We have a local elementary school that raises butterflies for our Wild Animal Park. It's always been in the back of my mind to try something like that. So, I'll enjoy the metaphor in this new book. thanks for joining in!

Cid said...

I'm so glad to hear you liked this one, I want it in hardcover as well. Might have to treat myself. I just posted a link to Kingsolver's Convocation address at Duke in 2008, it is heartbreaking in it's accuracy as to where our world is headed.

A Cuban In London said...

Great review, Sarah. I loved the fact that segment you quoted (fifth paragraph top to bottom). It was quite magical.

Congrats on Obama's re-election. I've been very critical of him, but at the same time I think he deserves four more years to sort out the mess left behind by his predecessor.

Greetings from London.

Amanda said...

sounds like a compelling read and i am completely enamored of the protagonists' names - ovid byron is an hellenophile's dream! like rose commented above, i have yet to read a kingsolver novel, but this intrigues me. great review.

troutbirder said...

Ok cutting to the chase sometimes I'm way behind &/or out of touch. Still believing once should always look to broaden ones horizons I said to a former student and now our town librarian "do you have any novels by Barbara Kingsolver." She did. I took a small stack. Now we will see what I've been missing...:)

Donna said...

I keep seeing "ARC" and I don't know what it means, although I suspect it's some kind of an advanced copy. Am I right? Those are fun to get!
P.S. I started "Gone Girl" this week!

Sarah Laurence said...

Barrie, thanks for hosting! That’s so cool about your elementary school butterfly breeders. My kids’ elementary school had a butterfly garden. The Monarchs in our yard enjoy our native asters. I’m tempted now to plant milkweed for the next generation.

Cid, I love that we’re both posting about Kingsolver on the same day. I worked as a research assistant on climate change policy back in the 1990’s at the Harvard Kennedy School of Public Policy, when many Americans didn’t believe it was a threat. At least after Sandy, people are taking global warming seriously.

ACIL, yes, I’m overjoyed to see Obama back for another term, but there is a lot of work to do.

Amanda, yes, the stories behind the names were fun too. You would love Kingsolver.

Troutbirder, yeah, another new Kingsolver reader! I’d love to hear your reaction to her work.

Donna, ARC=Advanced Reader’s Copy. The publisher prints some copies ahead of publication for professional reviewers and book bloggers. These days, though, most ARC are now digital galleys for ereaders. Let us know what you think of Gone Girl.

elizabeth said...

Dear Sarah,
This book sounds both involving and timely --in view of global warming and so forth.
New York has been rather grim but it now somewhat better. I pity the poor people in the suburbs and at the shore.
I do hope your family were not badly affected?
Warmest wishes.

Sarah Laurence said...

Elizabeth, It's good to see you back online. My parents and cousins were far enough uptown in Manhattan to be fine. My brother's office downtown was shut for a week and his home town in the NY suburbs is still a mess. He has a natural gas generator and took in other without power. Life is slowly getting back to normal. Thanks for asking.

Alyssa Goodnight said...

I've never read Barbara Kingsolver, but this one sounds intriguing. Different than what I might normally read.

Great review!

Petra said...

To compare leaves falling suddenly in clumps with falling hair of a chemo patient sounds very painful to me... perhaps too harsh. Is there any explanation of the vision from the opening in the book?

I was also wondering what the ARC stands for and your explanation makes me feel curious whether publishers in my country also print some copies ahead of publication for professional reviewers and book bloggers...

Sarah Laurence said...

Petra, the tree imagery ties into the central metaphor of a planet sick from climate change. It is a harsh but realistic view of the planet from an ecological perspective, but there is treatment for cancer too, and beautiful imagery as well. There is both danger and hope. The vision in the opening is explained later in the book. What the MC takes to be fire is instead millions of migrating butterflies on the trees. I believe ARCs exist in all countries that publish books but many are moving to a digital format.

tina said...

It sounds like a very intriguing novel. Just the opening scene about the forest burning without heat sure sets a great picture and draws one in.

Les said...

I have read three of Kingsolver's books, and each one I didn't want to end. It looks like I now have a fourth to seek out.

Carol said...

Great review Sarah . . . as per usual of course. This book is on the top of my list. Barbara Kingsolver is one of my favorite authors! I have been reading and hearing a good deal about it. Love the name Ovid as a character. His poem 'Metamorphosis' cannot be just a coincidence. We could certainly need a prayer for the future along with outrage and action by all citizens. Not sure I like the image of folks going into a colony and plucking butterflies and then throwing them up. Thank you for your kinds words Sarah. Truthfully though I am not an expert at anything. ;>)

Sarah Laurence said...

Carol, thanks for sharing that fun fact about Ovid and Metamorphosis. I love the layers of meaning in her books. Kingsolver is one of my favorite authors too. Have no fear: the colony plucking was done for science. I'd love to hear your reaction when you've read it. You are an expert in blogging well about nature; that is a skill.

Sarah Laurence said...

Alyssa, Tina and Les, sorry to skip over your comments - Im so pleased to hear that you're eager to read this book and I look forward to hearing your reaction to this most fascinating novel.

cynthia newberry martin said...

Back to catch up on your other posts. Really enjoyed the two reviews--this one and Gone Girl (which I'd been curious about). And I always love the photos.

Booksnyc said...

I am a big fan of Kingsolver and am looking forward to reading her latest. Glad you liked it and endorsed it for fans of the author!