Flight Behavior discusses personal growth, change
Posted November 26, 2012 at 9:45 pm in Lifestyle
Barbara Kingsolver‚Äôs new novel Flight Behavior wrestles with change and progress both on a small and large scale,. Though the novel has its flaws, particularly with an uncomfortably slow and dense beginning, it eventually grows to be as beautiful, thought-provoking and complex as the monarch butterfly, the catalyst of its action. As the novel grapples with highly controversial and important issues such as progress and its resulting casualties, the novel ultimately leaves readers with a question: ‚ÄúWhat is the use of staying in a world that has no soul?‚ÄĚ
Flight Behavior follows Dellarobia Turnbow, a poor farmwife seemingly cursed to a life of monotonous motherhood that is only interrupted by her controlling in-laws. Dellarobia‚Äôs misery and boredom drive her into the arms of adultery with a telephone repairman. Only a mile away from the rendezvous, she‚Äôs stopped short by the sight of what she thinks to be an act of God: the fiery and overwhelming presence of millions of monarch butterflies coating the trees and swirling through the air.
These butterflies become the center of Flight Behavior, their fight for survival mirroring that of Dellarobia‚Äôs. The butterflies, native to Mexico, have never been seen in the mountains of Southern Appalachia, and their appearance¬† becomes a national news phenomenon and draws the attention of expert Dr. Ovid Byron. He, along with his colleagues, sets up a lab in the Turnbow‚Äôs old sheep barn, effectively invading the Turnbow‚Äôs life and irrevocably involving their family in science and the fight to convince the general populace about science‚Äôs validity. Dellarobia and her family can‚Äôt help but be sucked into the work in their backyard, and it is through Dellarobia‚Äôs interaction with science and the potential end of a species that the novel progresses and grows.
With a plot that focuses more on themes and metaphors than a series of dramatic events, perhaps the novel‚Äôs greatest strength is the prose; Kingsolver, as she has done with her bestselling novels The Poisonwood Bible, The Lacuna and Prodigal Summer, yet again weaves words together to produce beauty in a place of poverty and pain. The pastor uses ‚Äúhis hands to push and pull his congregants as if kneading dough and making grace rise,‚ÄĚ the air in the forest was ‚Äúfilled with quivering butterfly light‚ÄĚ and initially Dellarobia‚Äôs life was ‚Äúmeasured in half dollars and clipped coupons and culled hopes flattened between uninsulated walls.‚ÄĚ The prose makes Dellarobia and her life relatable and undeniably, painfully realistic, highlighting the initial smallness of her world and emphasizing the close intimacy of the encounters shown to the reader.
A complaint, though, is that the setting and initial life of Dellarobia and her family are somewhat over-described and emphasized. Kingsolver states, shows and highlights the monotony and seeming emptiness of Dellarobia‚Äôs life ‚ÄĒ and then repeats the process excessively. The establishment of this monotony might be necessary for the story‚Äôs emotional impact, but its depiction outstays its welcome and, as a result, the beginning of the book drags too heavily. New details are just new details supporting the same argument, rather than changing or fine-tuning Kingsolver‚Äôs theme; characters are specified but not deepened.
But just when readers think they‚Äôve settled in for another 300 pages of painful empathy in a world of repetitive dreariness, Flight Behavior picks up and becomes nearly impossible to put down. At its heart the novel is about climate change: The butterflies have come because of a change in a genetically coded, time-tested pattern that is, according to Dr. Byron, caused by global warming. Kingsolver introduces an element of quiet suspense when Dr. Byron clarifies that almost the entire population of monarch butterflies is in the mountains ‚ÄĒ and if it gets too cold or too warm at any point during the winter, the entire species could become extinct.
In Flight Behavior, the issue of global warming highlights the differences in class and perspective, showing both sides how little they understand the realities of their opposition. Dr. Byron is shocked to learn that Dellarobia‚Äôs high school only taught two levels of math, while Dellarobia struggles to integrate larger scientific theories into her family‚Äôs belief system, which is more concerned with lambing and sheep shearing than global environmental problems.
This underlying tension mirrors the everyday occurrences of Dellarobia‚Äôs life, which continues as normal even as she participates¬† in research. Readers experience the tension in her mismatched marriage, the revelation and growth of her character from all corners and the hope for her children and their futures. The dual progression of the butterflies and Dellarobia‚Äôs self-awareness strikingly evokes myriad fears: those of loss, change and the unknown for everyone in the story.
Unfortunately, through the exploration of the theme ‚Äúscience meets generally uneducated backwater town,‚ÄĚ the scientific message of the novel isn‚Äôt so much gift-wrapped and placed in front of readers as is it beaten into them with a bat. The gravitas of the butterflies, climate change and the goals and aims of science are repeated too many times in too many ways in an attempt to further the reader‚Äôs comprehension of these themes. Readers understand the point when Dellarobia first learns it, when she tries to tell her husband, again when she tries to tell her mother-in-law and yet again when she discusses it with her best friend, Dovey. Though the theme is certainly relevant and each character displays a different reaction, the variations don‚Äôt add anything to the novel‚Äôs impact.
The slow beginning and the repetition of message, however, don‚Äôt eradicate the powerful effect this book might have on its readers. Though Flight Behavior employs one of the most obvious metaphors in literature ‚ÄĒ the metamorphosis of butterflies ‚ÄĒ this book is filled with complex intricacies and metaphors within metaphors. Even the grand theme of the butterfly isn‚Äôt out of place, as Dellarobia‚Äôs transformation and growth are as beautiful as the striking butterflies that she studies. The successful use of¬† metaphor speaks to Kingsolver‚Äôs masterful abilities as a writer and storyteller, making this novel a joy to experience despite its minor flaws.