Think of a monarch butterfly. Then think of a few dozen of them, all clustered around the same rock or branch. Then a few hundred. Then millions. So much so that you don't even realize that they're butterflies. They're just one giant swath and mass of color. I can't seem to conceptualize it, to picture it. But Barbara Kingsolver can. And this image is the center of her newest book.
I'll make no secret of the fact that she is one of my favorite authors, and has been for the past few years. So when I pick up one of her books, I have pretty high expectations.
Flight Behavior met and surpassed those expectations with flying colors.
Barbara Kingsolver has a way of getting to the heart of things, and doing this consistently in a very poignant way. Her language is, as always, gorgeous, and she has a way of making even the most ordinary dull things seem beautiful. Her stories always flow along, but in a very serene, unnoticed way.
Normally, I am a pretty fast reader. I race through books I read for pleasure, and generally subscribe to the idiom about a book "so good that you can't put it down." But to talk of books like that is to imply that suspense is all that matters, or is the only thing that drives our reading, and that's simply not true. Flight Behavior took me an extraordinarily long time to read--I needed all of the three-week loan from the library--precisely because it was so good. I'd read a sentence, or a page, and then simply lay the book down, and absorb what I'd read. The ramifications for life--my life and others--and for the world were just so enormous, in this one story.
The plot at the heart of this book revolves around Dellarobia, a young farm wife in Appalachia who stumbles upon this giant, living, breathing fire-colored thing on the mountain land that her family owns. Only later does she realize that it's a roosting colony of millions of monarchs. The town's congregation calls it a miracle. The media calls it a sensation. Scientists call it a disaster.
If I had to describe this book in one word, I would say: change. If I had an extra sentence, it would be: how one event can all mean different changes for so many people, and how they almost never see eye-to-eye.
Dellarobia is at the center of this change. The tryst she was sneaking off to no longer matters. The local minister sees her as the bringer of a miracle. Her relationship with her husband, so long discontented, is unpredictable. She becomes an unwanted celebrity. A scientist sets up shop in her barn, and she finds herself drawn into his world, the world of the butterflies, even despite herself. And to her great surprise, she no longer hates her in-laws.
Sure, this is a book with a strong narrative about climate change. But it is also about how we see the world, or don't see it at all. It's about the clash of many worlds--of small-town Appalachia, where a mother taking a job outside the home reflects badly on her husband, and the world of the mobile, liberal middle class, where you can get paid to study butterflies. It's about choices that we make, or ones that we think are made for us. It's about opportunity, and destiny, and experience. It's about complacency, and fear.
And in all that, it's ultimately about being human. Because that's the kind of story that the best novels tell. And Barbara Kingsolver does write the best. Put this on your list, folks. You won't regret it. And if you enjoy it, try some of my other favorites by her--Animal Dreams, Prodigal Summer, and The Lacuna--because they're all amazing.