Barbara Kingsolver is someone I discovered by accident, thanks to the now defunct “3 for 2” offer Waterstones ran for years. I had two books I definitely wanted, so was scanning for a third, and decided that The Poisonwood Bible sounded like it might be an interesting read. That book pretty much blew my mind (I can still remember the last lines of it, all these years later) and since then, a new novel from Kingsolver is not one to be ignored.
With Flight Behavior, we are on familiar Kingsolver territory. Climate change is something she obviously feels very strongly about, and here she uses ordinary people to make some extraordinary arguments. Centring around Dellarobia Turnbow (with this novel, it seems Kingsolver has attended the E. Annie Proulx school for Preposterous Character Names), who married too young and one day, on impulse, tries to walk out of her life. She walks into a displaced colony of monarch butterflies, which usually overwinter in Mexico, so what are they doing in the (fictional) town of Feathertown, Tennessee?
The tiny farming town takes the butterflies as a miracle and almost deify Dellarobia when her husband, Cub, lets slip that she had a vision of them before they were found. But then a scientist turns up to tell them that while they may look beautiful, the monarchs arriving in Feathertown is not a good thing. Ovid Byron (see?) has dedicated his life to studying the monarchs and knows all about the havoc climate change is wreaking on the planet. His stay on the Turnbow farm to study the monarchs has wide reaching consequences for Dellarobia and her family.
In the hands of a less skilled novelist, this could be a preachy mess. Kingsolver, on the other hand, is a past master. Her character development is rich, in-depth and complex. There are no clear cut Evil Scientists and Poor Farm Workers here. The everyday and mundane is rendered every bit as exciting to read as the extended discussions on climate change and “global weirding”. An extended fight between Dellarobia and Cub as they shop for Christmas gifts in the Dollar Store was actually the highlight of the book for me, closely followed by a standoff between Dellarobia and an earnest green protester, keen to sell her his Green Manifesto.
Crucially, Kingsolver never talks down to the reader, nor does she patronise any of her characters. There’s only one point where I felt I could hear her own opinions coming out the mouth of Ovid Byron. The rest of the time (ill advised inclusion of two hideous stereotypical Brits aside), you absolutely believe what you’re reading and who you’re reading about. The final chapters left me feeling desperately happy-sad and I’ve had the most tremendous Book Hangover from this one since I finished. High praise indeed. So why is it only 4 stars and not the full 5? Well, because much is made of how Dellarobia loves perfect grammar. Yet she uses “who” when it should be “whom” on occasion and the book has SO many uses of the word “gotten”. I expected more from someone like Barbara Kingsolver.