I went off Barbara Kingsolver a few years ago. It was after I read Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, her holier-than-thou ode to rich white people who make the only choice possible in today’s mixed-up, polluted world: to eat only what you grow. Might be nice, I frequently muttered while reading this book, if you don’t need to pay the mortgage and see an occasional movie. But my book group chose Flight Behavior, and so I reluctantly returned. When I saw that Kingsolver herself read the novel, I briefly wavered, but the devil on my shoulder pointed out that listening to her could provide additional reasons to dislike her. Just to be clear: I loved her early books, particularly those about the endearing Turtle (The Bean Trees and Pigs in Heaven). It was only when she began lecturing me that our relationship went sour.
Flight Behavior has its share of lectures, but in-between is some beautiful writing and an interesting heroine. Dellarobbia Turnbow – married at 16 to a momma’s boy and 12 years' later a desperate housewife and mother of two – has decided to have an affair. She’s trudging across her in-laws’ mountainous property in Appalachian Tennessee to meet the mailman for some illicit sex in an abandoned cabin, when she happens upon a glen that is shimmering gold in the sunlight. When she gets closer, she realizes that the trees are full of Monarch butterflies – mostly hanging upside down as they prepare to hunker down for the winter. Only trouble is, the butterflies are in the wrong place – they should be wintering over in Mexico, but the town where millions of them converge each winter has experienced environmental devastation: the deforested mountain slid down into the village destroying the Monarchs’ habitat. Whatever is inside their (fictional) migrating brains has told them to settle on the Turnbow sheep farm.
The farm is part of a backward, dying mountain community, but – once word gets out about the butterflies – Dellarobbia’s mother-in-law realizes that there might be some economic gain, and so she prevents her husband’s sale of the land for timber. Some scientists, led by a transplanted Virgin Islander named Ovid Byron, arrive to begin evaluating the situation. Dellarobbia befriends the scientists and soon finds herself as a lab assistant making more money than her somewhat dim, truck-driving husband.
The book is metaphor gone wild. Dellarobbia has also landed in the wrong place, where her life is in the balance and her journey to this realization and moves to save herself form the meat of this lengthy novel. Since she grew up in this small town, I was never quite sure how she managed to become so superior to its other residents. She has a lot of self-awareness and spends a lot of time smugly feeling how much smarter and more worldly she is. (Frankly, she gets a little tiresome.)
Kingsolver does lecture, mostly using Ovid as her mouthpiece, but she also brings out – through Dellarobbia, mostly – how very difficult it is for poor people to make positive environmental choices. There is a scene where a do-gooder is hanging out with the butterflies petitioning visitors to pledge to act in ways that can slow climate change and practically everything on his list requires at least a middle income – drive a hybrid car, buy at local markets, don’t send stuff to the landfill, etc. Maybe those nasty thoughts I sent her way made an impact.
The writing, as I said earlier, is lovely – her word painting of the town, the farm, the mountain, the glen where the butterflies are hanging out, Dellarobbia’s tired little prefab house, a sheep-shearing barn, even a massive used-goods store are clear and vivid. They never sounded writerly or too-too literary to me. It’s a pleasure to let these descriptions wash over you. Her characters are not terribly complex, but even the smallest portrayal is sharp and telling.
And, I gotta say (not even grudgingly) Kingsolver does a very good job of reading. Her slow, soft Appalachian inflections are just right for this book – which takes its time as it tells the story of one long winter. She doesn’t make a lot of character differentiation – slightly deeper for men, harsher for her mother-in-law, and more drawl-y for the town’s various, uneducated denizens. She goes all out for Ovid, though, giving him what sounds to me like an authentic and consistent Caribbean lilt (until he says he is from St. Thomas (St. John?), I – like everyone else – assumed he was Jamaican … but if there is a distinction between these two speech patterns [and I’m sure there is], my ears wouldn’t know). When Ovid is giving one of Kingsolver’s lectures on climate change and how we are wasting our last chances to make it right, they are entirely tolerable in his rhythms and vowels.
If I have one complaint, it was Kingsolver’s inability to decide how Dellarobbia’s name is pronounced. Mostly, she used a long o in the third syllable, but a long u popped up on more than one occasion.
So, maybe it’s time to try another Kingsolver. I’ve got personal copies of both The Poisonwood Bible and Prodigal Summer, but I’m feeling more inclined to go back to her earliest books. They’re on audio.
[The exquisite photograph of the Monarch butterfly was taken by Thomas Bresson. Dellarobbia tells us that she is named after a fruit wreath, but then Ovid tells her that there was a 15th century Italian sculptor by that name. The terracotta relief of Alexander the Great, dellarobbia added later, is from Luca's son Andrea. It hangs in Vienna's Kuntsthistorisches Museum; the photograph is by Vassil. Both images were retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]
Narrated by the author
HarperAudio, 2012. 16:56