Monday, June 18, 2012

Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver

You may scoff at the idea, but there are some really great perks that come with a career in public librarianship. One of the greatest is the chance to read a favorite author’s new novel a full five months before it comes out. I recently got my hands on a copy of Barbara Kingsolver’s upcoming novel Flight Behavior and it is a spectacular book that more than makes up for the long hours I’ve spent slaving away in the book mines.

In an opening reminiscent of The Bean Trees (Kingsolver’s first novel), Flight Behavior starts with a young woman running away from her established life in rural Appalachia. Taylor Greer of The Bean Trees had diligently avoided teen pregnancy, saved up some money, and left Kentucky in her early twenties. Dellarobia Turnbow, the main character of Flight Behavior, wasn’t as careful with her high school boyfriend and, at the start of the novel, she’s a twenty-eight year old mother of two with an unfulfilling marriage and a constrained future on her in-laws’ sheep farm in Tennessee. She’s prepared to throw all that away for the quick thrill of an adulterous tryst with a telephone lineman she arranged to meet in a hunting shack on the mountain behind her house. She trudges up the mountain, bemoaning the vanity that led her to wear impractical boots and leave behind her glasses, only to be stopped in her tracks by an inexplicable sight. The valley before her erupts in a swirling orange maelstrom she can only interpret as a silent, heatless inferno. Awestruck and somehow changed, she forgets the lineman and returns to her family. Some time later she returns to the mountain with her husband, her in-laws, and her glasses. The inferno turns out to be a lost horde of monarch butterflies, a reality only slightly less disruptive than Dellarobia’s imagined forest fire.

The novel is rife with such mistaken assumptions tumultuously overturned. Even Dellarobia’s name confounds understanding. Dellarobia’s mother chose it thinking it had a biblical pedigree but eventually disappoints her daughter by remembering that “Dellarobia” is a type of wreath characterized by gaudy fake fruit. Neither woman realizes that the wreath was named for a well-respected Renaissance artist.

Meatier misunderstandings arise between Dellarobia and Ovid Byron, the biologist who comes to study the wayward butterflies. She’s as perplexed by his intellectualism as he is by her poverty-induced despair. Both academics and Appalachians have a history as hollow caricatures, but if any author can be trusted to present both groups with sympathetic honesty it’s Kingsolver. She grew up in Kentucky and now lives in rural Virgina, but she’s traveled the world and written a fair amount of ecologically-themed nonfiction in addition to her novels.

I was particularly intrigued by the paradoxes of Dellarobia, a woman who chafes under the constraints of her impoverished hometown, yearning for something more, but nonetheless finds herself siding with her Tennessean neighbors when confronted by outsiders. True to form, Kingsolver presents these internal struggles in clear and accessible language with a deceptive emotional depth. Several plot lines weave in and out of the narrative, influencing and informing each other but resisting any sort of false tidiness or tying-up of loose ends.

Ultimately, I must apologize for offering such strong praise for a novel you won’t be able to read until November. It’s in the library’s catalog now, ready for you to place a hold on it. Please do so and I’ll join you in counting down the days until it’s available. The large downside of reading it early is that I don’t have anyone talk to about the ending.

A photo from the University of Arkansas gives a sense of
what Kingsolver's characters are dealing with.

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