When Barbara Kingsolver’s novel, Flight Behavior, was published last fall, critics asked if it was possible to write a good novel about climate change. Having inhaled this stunning literary novel in two days, I can answer, Yes, it is. Kingsolver boldly interweaves the science and politics of climate change with the everyday lives of a struggling family. She creates a plausible fictional overview of a problem that will not go away.
Not only is Flight Behavior a passionate novel about climate change, it is also a mad housewife novel. The 28-year-old housewife heroine is so desperate for fulfillment that she is willing to throw away her marriage for a powerful crush on a hot telephone man, a scientist, or almost anybody.
One has to laugh, though crushes are not necessarily funny. Kingsolver, who wrote brilliantly about sex in Prodigal Women, knows what goes through a woman’s mind when sex determines her flight behavior. And whether she flies or not, Dellarobia views her crush object ironically.
The high incidence of fantasy in mad housewife novels is endearing. What do mad housewives possess without their fantasies? This smart, often wickedly funny novel complements Rachel Ingalls’ Mrs. Caliban, Robert Irwin’s The Limits of Vision, Sheila Ballantyne’s Norma Jean the Termite Queen, and Sue Kaufman’s Diary of a Mad Housewife.
The heroine, Dellarobia, a smart, vivacious red-haired woman without a college education, has serious problems. Stuck on a poor farm near Feathertown, Tennessee, with her dull husband, Cub, two young children, and in-laws next door, she has no money and no books. (The library in town has closed.) She doesn’t love Cub, who is interested mainly in truck engines, but they married because she got pregnant at 17. The first baby was born dead, but she stayed: now they have a kindergartener, Preston, and a toddler, Cordelia, and live in a ranch house her in-laws built for them on the farm.
Why fall for the telephone man? Why not? “She’d had crushes before, but this one felt life-threatening…” She drops off her children at her mother-in-laws, and then climbs the mountain to meet him wearing the uncomfortable genuine calfskin boots she found at Second Time Around. The boots are her first purchase for himself in a year besides hygiene products
So why put them on this morning to walk up a muddy hollow in the wettest fall on record? Black leaves clung like dark fish scales to the tooled leather halfway up her calves. This day had played in her head like a movie on round-the-clock reruns, and that’s why. With an underemployed mind clocking in and out of a scene that smelled of urine and mashed bananas, daydreaming was one thing she had in abundance. The price was right. She thought about the kissing mostly, when she sat down to manufacture a fantasy in earnest, but other details came along, setting and wardrobe.
It makes sense to me.
But then she sees something that looks like cornflakes on the trees. Then it seems to turn to flames. She thinks she is seeing a kind of orange burning bush, or burning trees. And so she returns home, thinking it is a sign that she should not risk her marriage and children for a crush.
The orange flames turn out to be butterflies: monarch butterflies have veered off-course and flown to overwinter in Tennessee instead of Mexico because of climate change. Dellarobia’s in-laws, Bear and Hester, who are struggling to support their farm and a machinist’s business, want to sign a contract with loggers to clear-cut the mountain. But Dellarobia urges Cub to take his parents up and look around before they sign, and when they see the butterflies, Cub believes that Dellarobia had a vision. He stands up at church and testifies, and pretty soon people think the butterflies are a miracle.
Dellarobia has been on the news because of her “vision,” and it is all over the internet. She regrets having talked to the TV reporter. Church groups and tourists begin to come, and often her mother-in-law, Hester, is the guide.
And then a gorgeous black man, Ovid Byron, shows up in a VW. He is a scientist, here to study the butterflies.
And, yes, Dellarobia has an instant crush. As she tells her best friend Dovey on the phone, he looks “like Bob Marley’s cute brother that avoided substance abuse and got an education.”
Soon Dellarobia becomes a fount of knowledge about butterflies and climate change., and perhaps she learns so much because her crush on Ovid is so great. Yet it all seems perfectly natural: she is very, very bright, and the scientific details are woven naturally into the story as she begins to work for Ovid and the students.
But even Dellarobia has a hard time accepting everything science tells her. Ovid tells her that the butterflies will probably become extinct because the mountain in Tennessee is not like the ones in Mexico.
These insects have been led astray, for whatever reason. But breeding and egg-laying are still impossible for them until spring, when the milkweeds emerge.”
“So if they die here, they die.”
“That’s right,” he said.
She despised this account, the butterflies led astray. She’d preferred the version of the story in which her mountain attracted its visitors through benevolence, not some hidden treachery.
Different people view the butterflies differently. To the scientists it’s not a matter of activism, it’s about observation. Dellarobia refuses to give up, and her interactions with different environmental groups give her a different perspective on the science.
Dellarobia’s crush on Ovid is strong, but he works around it and doesn’t mention it: this is a Barbara Kingsolver novel, not a romance novel.
And as a result of the work and new knowledge, we see Dellarobia’s life change rather abruptly, but satisfyingly.
It is probably a little too perfect.
But we’re talking about the last 50 pages. Kingsolver’s elegant, sometimes even exotic, writing actually reminds me a bit of Edith Wharton’s prose. This is a very good novel.