Once upon a time, I loved every book Barbara Kingsolver wrote: The Bean Trees grew into me, then Homeland and Other Stories, Animal Dreams (still my favorite), Pigs in Heaven. Heresy, I know, but Poisonwood Bible was not a favorite, but after surviving Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, I had to admit that my devotions diminished. Then came Flight Behavior last fall, and I couldn’t seem to avoid seeing that title bandied about in various literary listserv headlines, best-of compilations, award finalist short and longlists. So, in a fit of nostalgia, I hit ‘play.’
Dellarobia Turnbow is a discontented mother of two young children, trapped in a shot-gun marriage at age 17. Eleven years later, she’s still living in tiny Feathertown, Tennessee, in a house built by her in-laws, beholden to them for what little she and her sweet (but dull) husband have. Hiking up the mountains with intentions to flee her confining life – by starting an affair with the local telephone repairman – she comes upon a forest of monarch butterflies. The locals think it’s a miracle (Dellarobia’s mother takes groups up there for a fee!), the news goes national, and Dr. Ovid Byron arrives to tell the world that this disruption in the migration pattern of these majestic butterflies is actually an aberration of nature signaling disasters yet to come. Ovid’s passionate erudition is both an intellectual and emotional charge for Dellarobia who, surprise!, turns out to have a brain too big for her small-minded town. She spends three-quarters of the book in self-absorbed angst, and when she finally makes a major decision (spoiler alert!), a sudden deluge inundates her entire life.
Somehow, I managed to survive 17 hours of dogged, misplaced loyalty. Kingsolver herself reads Flight Behavior – and her website shouts, “audiobook wins raves.” A link to a Publisher’s Weekly review touts, “Kingsolver proves an excellent reader of her own work, perfectly conveying both Dellarobia’s gossipy, accented smalltown neighbors and the distinctive Jamaican accent of intellectual Ovid …” That supposed “distinctive Jamaican accent” is most definitely not; what comes forth is some indistinguishable cacophony. But here’s the worst offense (did the reviewer actually listen in full?): the good doctor makes a distinct point to the shut-in Dellarobia who questions his background about being from “‘The United States of America. St. Thomas, Virgin Islands.'” The word “Jamaica” does not appear anywhere in the book. Not all islands are the same. Nor are all island accents interchangeable, either!
Oh, but I digress. If read you will, be sure to choose the page. Just in case you had any doubt that this is a novel with a message, be warned: from deforestation, rising tides, mudslides, global warming, a flood of epic proportions, and more, it’s all in there. As important as environmental awareness, protection, and active restoration are, such sledgehammer reminders of our earth under threat doesn’t necessarily make for effective storytelling.
Tidbit: I’m loathe to leave you without an environmentally protective alternate suggestion … so might I suggest the witty and rollicking Ruth Ozeki? I adored both My Year of Meats and All Over Creation; her latest, A Tale for the Time Being, sits high on my ‘must-read’ piles.