Friday, February 23, 2018

A Story for the Times


Surprising. Funny. Serious. Contemporary. Varied. Talky. Engrossing.

These are a few of the adjectives that apply to Barbara Kingsolver's novel, Flight Behavior. We first meet Dellarobia Turnbow stuggling along a forest path, dressed inappropriately and wishing desperately for a cigarette, to begin an affair with her latest crush. She is desperate to escape her not-good-enough domestic scene: the steady but dull husband she had to marry because she was pregnant and the truncated parameters of stay-at-home wifedom with two small children and overbearing in-laws. Little does she know that when she stumbles upon the winter gathering place of millions of monarch butterflies, her life will change as dramatically as if she'd seen a Biblical burning bush.

Kingsolver weaves issues of family, place, marriage, faith, science, culture, and personal fulfillment into her story, portraying these individual concerns in the context of the causes and effects of climate change, with the butterflies and their (fictional) locale as the primary example. Dellarobia is blessed with a sharp mind, a dormant ambition, and a clever best friend, so her story moves briskly along. It bogs down somewhat when its educational message is delivered in conversations with scientist and monarch expert Ovid Byron. Overall, though, Kingsolver rises to the challenge of presenting scientific information in story form and in a way that's sympathetic to varying opinions. 

Dellarobia's conversation and thoughts are sprinkled generously with sharp--sometimes caustic--commentary, lightening the mood and highlighting her abilities. Kingsolver can turn a phrase, and for the most part does so successfully, although in a few instances one suspects that she conjured or overheard a particularly clever comment and purposely worked it in. Considering how central environmental gloom and Appalachian poverty are to the story, the jaunty commentary wears a little thin by novel's end.

Despite these glitches, the twists and turns of the plot pull the reader along and keep engagement high. As the wintery death that means extinction looms over the monarchs, Dellarobia moves closer and closer to her own crisis of decision-making. Her moment of choice, when it comes, arrives on a timetable similar to climate change itself: seemingly sudden, but long in the making.   

Excerpt:

Today [Dellarobia's best friend] Dovey made her a deal. She would make the grocery run for the party when she got off work at three, while Dellarobia dug around in the junk drawers of her former valor, trying to locate the nerve. Somewhere between outrage and giving up, that was where she found it. She was sick of begging for ornaments to hang on a tree, as part of some year-end conspiracy of alleged joy and goodwill arriving from heaven with no hard currency as backup. Fed up with stories about poor people with good hearts raising their damn cups of kindness. Sick of needing permission to throw a party in her own home, and not asking, because she was too proud to beg favors in this family. That's how the simple folk lived, in her particular Christmas story. It was overdue for a rewrite.

Note: This book counts toward the Color Coded Reading Challenge (blue) and the Mount TBR Reading Challenge 2018.         

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