Thursday, December 27, 2012

Flight Behavior: Marriage, Monarchs and a Changing Climate

Humans are the only animal that can use logic, but that doesn't mean we're always logical. Nor does it mean that we'll always be convinced by reason, or when presented with overwhelming factual evidence.

Yes, the back drop for Barbara Kingsolver's new novel Flight Behavior is climate change. But the novel also examines how poor choices in our personal lives can become victims of their own logic -- that how things are is how they'll be, and they can't be changed. In both cases, though, we do have the power to combat the inertia of entrenched beliefs -- it just takes some courage, discipline and a hell of a lot of hard work.

Dellarobia Turnbow is a married mother of two living on a farm in Eastern Tennessee with her husband Cub. And she's about to throw away her good name on an affair. But as she treks into the woods to the spot for her illicit rendezvous, she witnesses the side of a mountain as if it were a "lake of fire." What she's seeing is actually a huge swarm of monarch butterflies, who have taken a wrong turn (much like Dellarobia with her hasty marriage) on their way to their usual winter home in Mexico, and alighted on this mountain in Tennessee.

Soon, folks from all over the world begin descending upon this small, quiet, conservative Tennessee town to witness what some consider a miracle and what most consider to be a terrifying effect of climate change -- including the handsome, enigmatic Dr. Ovid Bryan, who takes up residence in a trailer on Cub and Dellarobia's farm to study the monarchs.

Throughout the novel, as Dellarobia becomes more involved in studying the butterflies (she gets a job helping Dr. Bryan with his research), and challenging her own beliefs -- both in terms of her conservative, religious values, and also her marriage to her husband, a shotgun affair when they were still in high school because Dellarobia was pregnant -- she begins to wonder what it might take to change her station in life. Is it possible? Is it realistic?

My favorite part of this novel was Dellarobia. I really, really liked her, and I was on her side from beginning to end -- rooting for her to figure that ineffable "it" out. She's plucky and smart, and increasingly determined to change for the better.

But overall, as someone who has studied and written frequently (in my real-world job) about climate change, I wish I'd liked this novel more than I did. It tends to get a little bogged down often with long descriptions of things like sheep husbandry and butterfly science. (Kingsolver is a trained biologist, and that's fairly evident here.) And there's a strange, not-critical-to-plot twist near the end that felt kind of unwarranted and unnecessary and left me wondering about the choice to include it.

The parts of the novel that some readers have found preachy -- about why people seem only to listen to and read media that props up their already-established-and-never-to-be-challenged beliefs, and why climate change seems to have become one of those things, despite the fact that it's not a political argument, but is a scientific near-certainty -- are the parts I actually found most interesting. (Kingsolver doesn't spend a lot of time on the evidence for climate change -- she assumes that you already know this, and also that you're a rational person, and understand that climate change is real. She's not trying to convince readers. She's more interested in the "psychology" of climate deniers, and how they try to recruit others to their fold.)

If you're in to biology and/or the politics of climate change, as well as a good, down-home story about the politics of marriage, you'll definitely find something to like here. I give it 3.5 stars


  1. I have this on my wishlist for Christmas (which hasn't even started with extended family yet). I've only read Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by her and know I should probably start with the Poisonwood Bible, but oh well. I read your bottom snippet only (I'm weird about reading reviews before I read the book) and am now torn- I like climate change and marriage, but 3.5 seems a little ho-hum. Hmmmm....

    1. I would start with Poisonwood Bible, or even The Bean Trees. I was blessed to be able to attend a reading of Flight Behavior, but have not had the chance to read it. Kingsolver's novels are always a great way to chisel your way into topics you may find interesting. Whether it is climate change, immigration, or America's political and economic involvement in Africa. (Flight Behavior, The Bean Trees, The Poisonwood Bible respectively)

  2. There is so much to like in this novel, but I agree that it fell a little short in story development. It's almost too simple for such a complicated topic. And it doesn't hold up to her other classics.