3.5 / 5
"A certain feeling comes from throwing your good life away, and it is one part rapture."
Flight Behavior transfixes from its opening scene, when a young woman's narrow experience of life is thrown wide with the force of a raging fire. In the lyrical language of her native Appalachia, Barbara Kingsolver bares the rich, tarnished humanity of her novel's inhabitants and unearths the modern complexities of rural existence. Characters and reader alike are quickly carried beyond familiar territory here, into the unsettled ground of science, faith, and everyday truces between reason and conviction.
Dellarobia Turnbow is a restless farm wife who gave up her own plans when she accidentally became pregnant at seventeen. Now, after a decade of domestic disharmony on a failing farm, she has settled for permanent disappointment but seeks momentary escape through an obsessive flirtation with a younger man. As she hikes up a mountain road behind her house to a secret tryst, she encounters a shocking sight: a silent, forested valley filled with what looks like a lake of fire. She can only understand it as a cautionary miracle, but it sparks a raft of other explanations from scientists, religious leaders, and the media. The bewildering emergency draws rural farmers into unexpected acquaintance with urbane journalists, opportunists, sightseers, and a striking biologist with his own stake in the outcome. As the community lines up to judge the woman and her miracle, Dellarobia confronts her family, her church, her town, and a larger world, in a flight toward truth that could undo all she has ever believed.
Flight Behavior takes on one of the most contentious subjects of our time: climate change. With a deft and versatile empathy Kingsolver dissects the motives that drive denial and belief in a precarious world.
I keep finding these books that I don't know anything about, although I must have at some point because I added them to my to-read list. There are SO many books on that list, though, that it's not a surprise that I don't recall all of them! I of course knew Kingsolver's work, and that was probably part of the reason I added this book. And, in typical Kingsolver fashion, it was a very good story. The author put you right in the middle of things from the start, and the situation pulled you along through the book. Dellarobia (love the origins of her name!) is a dissatisfied housewife who is about to have an affair - I mean, literally, she is walking towards where she is supposed to meet her co-adulterer when the book begins. She is stopped in her tracks by the gorgeous sight of droves of orange butterflies in flight. Being nearsighted, she cannot tell what the orange fire in the trees is, she just knows it is momentous and takes it as a sign - to begin living her life differently.
As with all well-intentioned real-life resolutions, though, Dellarobia has a difficult time sticking to this one. She does try, though, and notices changes taking place in her life almost immediately - in the way she interacts with her husband and in-laws, and the way she is perceived by others, although the latter has mostly to do with her having had a "vision" of the now famous butterflies before they were "discovered" by her husband and father-in-law. Since the butterflies are on the family's property, big changes begin to take place in everyone's lives, as first locals and then tourists begin flocking to see this unique spectacle.
Things take a sadder turn, though, when Dellarobia learns from a Mexican family and a visiting scientist that the butterflies are not meant to be there in Tennessee. She learns how their natural migration pattern usually takes them to Mexico, but that natural disasters have somehow thrown the butterflies off their regular path. In this way, much like Dan Brown does in Inferno regarding overpopulation, Kingsolver takes the novel in a turn towards pedagogy, and a bit of proselytizing about climate change. Not to say I don't agree with her! Just that she definitely uses her writer celebrity status to make an important point, and I admire her willingness to do so. (Most of her works do tend to have similar messages about nature, don't they? I don't recall Animal Dreams very well, as we read it in high school, and since The Poisonwood Bible was a sort of memoir, there was less intention in that one, I think. Prodigal Summer may have, although I don't remember. And The Lacuna had an entirely different message, but a message nonetheless. I like works that deliver messages! They make them much easier to swallow.)
In any case - I don't want to tell too much of the story, but it gets very in-depth regarding the butterflies and their disrupted migration patterns. Kingsolver's characters speculate quite a bit on what might have caused the problems, and I found all of that fascinating (and scary, and upsetting). Some might find the science section drier than the rest of the book, although Kingsolver does attempt to intersperse those parts with the more story-ish parts of the book, to make it more bearable for her readers.
I really knew nothing about the science of lepidoptery before this book, so I am glad I read it. I wouldn't recommend it nearly as highly as The Lacuna or even The Poisonwood Bible, but it is probably on par with what I felt about Prodigal Summer: a good book, well-written, but (aside from the butterflies) probably not something I'll remember forever. Just an enjoyable read. And the audiobook was read by the author herself, which was pretty great.
I want to leave with more images of the butterfly migration, because I find it all so fascinating. Plus, Kingsolver talks quite a bit about how strange the butterflies look when they are perched in a huge group on the trees, almost like a fungus. I had to see for myself!
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