Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver

Flight BehaviorOnce 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.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2012


Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Audio, .Fiction, Nonethnic-specific

18 responses to “Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver

  1. I just picked this up from the library, despite reading mixed reviews, but shall give her the benefit of the doubt and go in slightly wary – always better than with high expectations. And, it being on the longlist for the Women’s Prize for Fiction, 2013.

    I’m also reading Zadie Smith’s NW which has also had mixed reviews, but with that book, it’s territorial for me as I lived many years in the same neighbourhood, so full of familiar anecdotes, bus rides and references.

    • I must confess that I have had NW sitting in my MUST-READ-NOW pile for over a year … but I am just TOOOOO afraid. I have this silly fear that the next book by a favorite writer might be anything less than stellar and I literally get paralyzed and can’t read. Something eventually, always gets me to open the book, but that something hasn’t tipped yet with NW. I did actually buy the audible version a couple of months ago thinking that might do it, but I started listening and had to stop about half hour in. I couldn’t understand it stuck in the ears … I NEED to see the type for this one, I’m sure.

      As for Kingsolver … I keep hoping. Misplaced loyalty indeed. Some sort of crazy denial that the Kingsolver I so admired MUST be in those pages somewhere! I have both Lacuna and Prodigal Summer sitting on my shelves. They’re just waiting …

      Do let me know what you think about Flight.

      And thanks, as always, for your many thoughtful comments!

      • Ok, so NW is a book to read on the page and see how the words are placed. Already on page 24, the first page of chapter 7 all the words are placed on one page forming the shape of a tree. All the dialogue starts with a dash, there are none of the familiar he said, she said, it’s a little experiemental. Chapter 8 the shape of a mouth with the letters T O N G U E in the middle of it. Chapter 10, one of my favourites is a condensed version of a trip on the Number 98 or 16 or 32 bus from the top of Edgeware Rd to the beginning of Kilburn High Rd, it’s brilliant, if you ridden the double decker and sat on the top looking out all the cultural references. If you haven’t, I imagine it wouldn’t mean too much.

        And Kingsolver, wow – you still have Profigal Summer on the shelf! I had it on my bookshelf for 10 years and finally read it last summer and LOVED it. I am a fan of Lacuna as well, but its not to everyone’s taste and did take a little while to get into, but they are both great books in my book. I love that some of your favourite’s of hers are those I haven’t read too.

        • I also have both Prodigal AND Lacuna loaded on the iPod — see? Hope springs eternal! Inevitable that they will get read.

          Animal Dreams. Still my favorite. All her earliest books, actually! She feels like a totally different writer ever since she changed her geography. Southwest, brief single stop in the Congo (where she lived/volunteered for a year, I think?), and now Appalacia and thereabouts where she really seems to have a completely different voice …

          And she surely is prolific!

          • There was a ten year silence before Lacuna came out, but if you’re like me, that doesn’t seem like a very like time in reading terms.

            Louis de Bernieres also didn’t publish for 10 years and then came out with Birds Without Wings, one of my all time favourites.

          • Perhaps that’s why her voice is soooo very different now. And she’s certainly made up for lost time!

            I don’t think I’ve ever read your Louis de Bernieres. Must look him up!

          • P.S. Did I mention old age? DOHHHHH. I take that back about your Louis. I read Captain Corelli’s Mandolin years ago!!! Sheesh! Maybe even when we were living in London!

          • Birds Without Wings a much better and more rounded read even than Captain Correlli, which was a bit of a one off I think. It’s set against the backdrop of a crumbling Ottoman Empire and the terrible enforced separation of communities, the struggles of Greeks and Turks. It’s fascinating, probably because I didn’t know much of their history, but also because he creates unforgettable, lovable characters.

          • I just put your Birds on reserve at the library! Holy moly! The audible version is almost 23 hours long! And read by one of my favorite narrators, John Lee (who I continue to enjoy listening to immensely, although he also reads all of Orhan Pamuk’s titles, none of which have lived up to all the praise and awards they have garnered — call me contrary!). Perhaps I keep hoping Pamuk’s titles will eventually reach the level of John Lee’s narrating! Although I think after three of his titles, I can write him off my list for a good long time. I DID try!

            Am looking forward MUCHLY to your Birds!

          • Can’t wait to read what you think about Birds, have dusted off my own copy and taken a bit of a peek to remind me of it’s pleasures.

          • On the subject of Pamuk, I’m about to read his nonfiction Istanbul, the least I can do as I will visit that grand city for the first time in May this year and may even visit his Museum of Innocence, though I think anyone who got through that tome, lost theirs in the process! Much prefer Elif Shafak’s works these days.

          • Am mighty envious of your upcoming trip! I can be your book-bearer! How’s that?

            Museum of Innocence: http://bookdragon.si.edu/2012/04/12/museum-of-innocence-by-orhan-pamuk-translated-by-maureen-freely/ — John Lee was the only reason I did last to the end. That and contrariness misplaced. Egads, it was a terrible slog.

            But I admit, if I were headed to Instanbul, I’d be interested in peeking in! Can’t be worse than the book, right? The whole concept is indeed fascinating! And I learned about the actual museum less than a hour after I posted on the book! For that reason alone, I’d have to go!

          • Discovered an amazing picture book called The Innocence of Objects in our one English bookstore recently, was surprised to see it and delightful to peruse it’s pages in anticipation of the pending visit.

          • I can’t wait to hear about that impending visit! Take me, take me!

          • P.S. I have The Innocence of Objects linked at the bottom of the Museum of Innocence post … it goes to the publisher’s page. I was offered a copy and was so disappointed with the novel that I passed on the photo book. Now that I see the pictures from your link, perhaps I should have reconsidered … but someday, will hope to see the museum itself. I gotta get out more!!!

        • P.S. Oh, and we lived in London twice (late 80s, early 90s — I think we’ve had this conversation?). I try and go back regularly (has waned to not even once a year, alas) — perhaps after the next hopover, I can start NW! Have been all over Edgeware Road, Kilburn High Road. But not via the 98 or 16. I never did figure out the bus system. Tube, rollerblades, and the ever moving feet. Decades ago (*gasp*!!), I went to a library up there that had this fantastic ‘recorded book’ you could check out … this was back in the early 90s and I think it was actually a cassette set-up thing and you checked out the whole contraption. You had to go ‘find’ it via a slip of paper the front desk gave you when you asked for it upon entrance. The contraption was buried between two books in the far, far right corner, and you were instructed to go out the back door once you put it on. And then you followed the voice through a mystery hunt of sorts — and had to be careful to match every step to the recorded steps that punctuated the narrator’s voice as you wandered the neighborhood’s less traveled nooks and crannies. It was quite a multi-sensoral experience back then, and I’ve never forgotten it. Oh, and it was created by an ex-pat American living in London, so it had that sort of lost, but not-lost cual feeling to it.

          • I’m not sure where that was, but there is a brand new library at the beginning of Kilburn High Rd right next to the relatively new Starbucks and new Tescoes, it has certainly changed since the mid nineties since I lived there, but I do visit often and love it just as much as I did then.

          • I can’t tell you exactly where, although if you dropped me there, I might find it … it was a VERY old (dark and musty inside, but beautiful) building, you had to go off the High Road and make a few small turns and then there it is. SOOO descriptive, I realize! The section where you turned off (back then) had a number of ethnic shops, so lots of really wonderful rich, spicy smells. I need to pull out my A to Zed … I remember it being a theater listing in the paper and I went three times before I had my turn with it … the library also had rather limited hours, it seemed. The brain ain’t working like it used to …

            And I do love the more recent, Persian restaurant part of Edgeware Road. Like the last five-10 years? Or that’s when we discovered that section, long after we moved. I remember a little courtyard off an alley that had a couple of restaurants back there … our daughter (when she was still oh so adorably young — she’s all grown up teenager now, ahem!) very politely asked for tadig which surprised the owner to no end and he brought us heaps and heaps of it.

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