Monday, December 17, 2012

Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver

I’ve struggled a little with how to review Flight Behavior because my feelings about it are conflicted. I was extremely excited to receive an advance copy for review, and, at first, it met my expectations. The prose was good, the main character, Dellarobia, was well-drawn, and the plot was intriguing: Dellarobia climbs the mountain behind her house, planning to cheat on her husband, only to have her mind changed when the side of the mountain appears to be on fire. Upon closer inspection, it turns out the “fire” is actually a massive migration of butterflies whose migratory patterns have been messed up by climate change.

There are other characters, the primary one being Ovid Byron, a scientist--entomologist, probably--who arrives on Dellarobia’s farm to study the butterflies. He’s the most developed character outside of Dellarobia herself, and when the two of them share a scene, things work pretty well. Kingsolver’s prose is excellent--her language is evocative and warm without being overblown, and it’s well-suited for describing the ethereal beauty of the butterflies.

However, after getting about midway through the book, I began to have misgivings. First, it was the speechifying. Look, I’m not a climate change denialist, and I largely sympathize with Ovid’s (and Kingsolvers) concerns about the environment. That said, there are numerous multi-page conversations that do little to advance the plot, but instead serve as a way to soapbox global warming. Kingsolver is a good writer--surely there must have been a better way to embed the information than exposition dumps disguised as dialog. Some of it is interesting, but no one likes to feel like their novel is preaching to them.

The other issue I had with the book involves its treatment of the non-Dellarobia characters in her hometown. They are, at the beginning, presented in the broadest way possible. Her husband, nicknamed Cub, is a redneck, as his father, nicknamed Bear. His mother, Hester, is overbearing and controlling, and mostly unkind. They’re all deeply religious, and believe that the butterflies are a sign for God. They’re also vehement climate change denialists, at least at the beginning, although their views do change minimally throughout the novel. Overall, though, the book gives them the short shrift. We are told repeatedly what a good man Cub is, even if he isn’t quite the good man for Dellarobia, but we’re never really shown, so my ultimate impression of him was that he was a man-child who never even tried to be an adult. Bear gets even less characterization. Hester is a legitimately complex character, but she disappears for long stretches of the book, and a revelation about her near the end never really resolves. I felt no love in Flight Behavior for any of the tertiary characters, save maybe Dellarobia’s rambunctious friend Dovey, and though the book seems to be presenting some sort of faith-vs-reason dichotomy, it lands so firmly on the side of reason that it sometimes feels more like a satire than a realistic novel.

Finally, there’s the issue of the ending, which I will be partially spoiling below. If you haven’t read the book and don’t want to know the ending, stop reading now.


The novel ends with Dellarobia deciding that, yes, she has married the wrong man, so she decides to get a divorce, move out of town, and go back to school. She breaks this to her son by a) telling him she has some exciting news b) sharing said news i.e. that she’s moving away and going back to school but he’ll still be able to see her c) justifying her decision by comparing it to crapping the bed, and d) withholding what is essentially her going away gift, an iPhone, until her young son admits that things will never be the same. Lest this sounds like an exaggeration, here’s the passage:
“What if I want everything to stay how it is?” he asked.
“Oh, man, that’s the bite. Grown-ups want that too. Honestly! That’s what makes them crap the bed and stay in it, I’m not even kidding.”
His eyes scooted away from hers, avoiding the verdict.
“It won’t ever go back to the way it was, Preston. You have to say that right now, okay? Just say it and I’ll give you the pod-thing.”
He glanced over at her, making sure, and said it. “It won’t ever go back to how it was.”
“Okay” She handed it over. “You’re the man.”
The high-school language ("Oh, man", "I'm not even kidding") seems wildly inappropriate for breaking world-shattering news to your child. This section so impacted my view of Dellarobia that it retroactively tainted the rest of the book. The story begins with her about to make a selfish mistake, and ends with her selfishly upending everyone’s lives and forcing them to accept it whether they like it or not. The very end comes out of nowhere, and feels like a cosmic attempt to validate Dellarobia’s choice, but her treatment of her child and husband had already wrecked her character for me by then. Maybe this is just a personal bias, I don’t know. All I can say is that, while it has its strong points, I ultimately didn’t enjoy Flight Behavior that much, even though I really wanted to.


trish said...

Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this book as part of the tour!

Brent Waggoner said...

Thanks, Trish! Looking forward to the next one!

Rowena Hailey said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Lydia N said...

Hi, I found this entry when I googled "ending of Flight Behavior" because I wanted to see if anyone else didn't like it. This pretty much summed it up for me. I also was upset that Dellarobia wouldn't even straight up tell her son they were getting a divorce. She tip-toed around it, like she could hide the terrible truth from him, or soften the blow, or something patronizing like that. Thanks for writing this!

Brent Waggoner said...

Thanks for the comment, Lydia. I'm glad someone who agreed with the review found the blog!