Barbara Kingsolver’s latest novel, Flight Behavior, is as excellent as all her other works. I first heard about it some time ago when she did an interview about it on NPR (on Fresh Air I think, but I forget exactly). When I ran across it in my local indie-bookstore I had to pick it up, and I finally got around to reading it about two weeks ago. I can’t express how much I loved this book. It spoke to my soul, and I have never identified quite so strongly with a character as I did with Dellarobia. At a glance, our lives have actually been very different, but there are a lot of similarities between her life after children and mine. Neither of us regret our children, and even in a way chose our children. But we still feel a bit trapped by them, and that our intelligence is being under-utilized. We’re even the exact same age and live with difficult in-laws. I’ve found very different strategies for assuaging those feelings than Dellarobia did, but I sympathized nonetheless.
Flight Behavior has a relatively simple plot, with incredibly unsimple characters and emotions depicted. Dellarobia is a wife and mother in a tiny town in the Appalachian mountains. She married her senior year of high school because she became pregnant, then quickly lost the baby. She and her husband eventually had two more, despite finding themselves totally ill-suited to each other, and settled down in a little house on the edge of his family’s land to be farmers. Dellarobia was a bright, college-bound girl from a poor area that traditionally did not encourage too much education, and she is desperately unhappy but doesn’t know why or what to do about it. Into this mess fly the butterflies, the entire population of Monarch butterflies who usually migrate to Mexico for the winter but have settled in the mountains behind Dellarobia’s home instead. Some call the beautiful mountain-valley full of swirling orange wings a miracle. Others raise it up as a rallying-cry against global-warming. And the foremost expert on Monarch butterflies comes to camp in Dellarobia’s back yard while he studies the phenomenon, along with his graduate students. He is looking for answers and mourning the almost certain destruction of the species by the harsh climate here, and in the process he turns Dellarobia’s life upside down by the very simple expedient of recognizing her intelligence and putting it to work. The transformative power of work suited to a person’s interests and intelligence is illustrated beautifully. Eventually, most of her problems are worked out for the better with the promise of more good things to come.
The ending is bitter-sweet, but it is exactly the end that Dellarobia’s character demands and deserves. It’s also a fairly unusual ending in media, with a message of independence and that it’s never too late to follow your dreams, even if you are a woman. The sympathetic portrait of a stay-at-home mom’s trials and tribulations resonated with my own experiences. And as always, Kingsolver’s prose were compelling in a way usually reserved for poetry. But what really kept me coming back was the depth and range of emotions evoked in both the characters and myself as a character. Kingsolver raised everything from sympathy to outrage to despair to joy and especially love. She plays the reader’s feelings like a well-tuned piano and digs into the complexity of her characters to do it.