Flight Behavior: A Novel
Barbara Kingsolver (Facebook)
Harper (November 2012), Hardcover (ISBN 0062124269 / 9780062124265)
Fiction, 448 pages
Source: ARC from publisher, received at BEA 2012
Reason for reading: TLC Book Tour
Opening Lines: “A certain feeling comes from throwing your good life away, and it is one part rapture. Or so it seemed for now, to a woman with flame-colored hair who marched uphill to meet her demise. Innocence was no part of this. She knew her own recklessness and marveled, really, at how one hard little flint of thrill could outweigh the pillowy, suffocating aftermath of a long disgrace.”
Book description, from the publisher’s website:
Flight Behavior takes on one of the most contentious subjects of our time: climate change.
Dellarobia Turnbow is a restless farm wife who gave up her own plans when she accidentally became pregnant at seventeen. Now, after a decade of domestic disharmony on a failing farm, she has settled for permanent disappointment but seeks momentary escape through an obsessive flirtation with a younger man. As she hikes up a mountain road behind her house to a secret tryst, she encounters a shocking sight: a silent, forested valley filled with what looks like a lake of fire. She can only understand it as a cautionary miracle, but it sparks a raft of other explanations from scientists, religious leaders, and the media. The bewildering emergency draws rural farmers into unexpected acquaintance with urbane journalists, opportunists, sightseers, and a striking biologist with his own stake in the outcome. As the community lines up to judge the woman and her miracle, Dellarobia confronts her family, her church, her town, and a larger world, in a flight toward truth that could undo all she has ever believed.
Some fiction isn’t “about” much of anything. Flight Behavior is “about” a lot of things. Climate change is the “big” thing, and it’s considered in terms of the scientific facts and the popular resistance they’ve encountered in many places. Marital and family disharmony is another key element of the novel; Dellarobia is a devoted mother to her two children, but her life is far from what she expected it to be and she’s uncertain of her place in it. However, I felt the novel’s central force was the tension between the two worldviews that seem to characterize 21st-century America–liberal/conservative, red/blue, or whatever shorthand you choose to identify it. That tension is based in differing responses to change, and ultimately, “change”–not just of the environmental variety–is the primary theme of Flight Behavior. Our knowledge of the world and the people who surround us–and even of ourselves–is often incomplete and imperfect, and any bit of new information can force us to reassess everything and engage with the world in a new way.
There’s a great deal going on here. The author’s background in biology informs the scientific elements of the novel, but those elements aren’t conveyed in a manner that feels inauthentic to the story. Kingsolver’s characters are well-developed and complex, and their grappling with the effects of a changing natural world on their lives feels authentic as well. However, what struck me most about Flight Behavior was a sense of empathy and compassion. The novel’s setting is the Appalachian Mountains of eastern Tennessee, a conservative, economically-struggling area subject to a fair amount of Southern stereotypes; by endowing Dellarobia with wry humor and just enough self-awareness, Kingsolver refrains from making her characters cheap targets.
I heard Kingsolver speak about this new novel of hers at Book Expo America this past summer, and when she said it was about global warming, I was a little apprehensive about it. I’m not someone who doesn’t believe it’s real, but I was concerned about the potential for heavy-handedness and preachiness from an author I used to read faithfully, but whose recent books haven’t greatly appealed to me. I don’t love The Poisonwood Bible as I think I should; I was somewhat underwhelmed by Prodigal Summer; and I haven’t really wanted to read The Lacuna at all. But I’m back in the fold now, and I’d call Flight Behavior Kingsolver’s most accessible and engaging novel since Pigs in Heaven (which is probably my favorite of hers). I’d also call it one of the best novels of 2012.
Tuesday, November 6th: A Reader of Fictions