Barbara Kingsolver has so much she wants to tell us in Flight Behavior. There is a crisis of catastrophic proportion exploding around us – it is climate change and the truth of it is undeniable. I know that. My cohorts who make up the recycling, locavore, public radio reader demographic of Flight Behavior are already on board. We know butterflies are good and rednecks are bad. What is the point of this novel, again? And for whom is it written?
It could be about what made me fall in love with Barbara Kingsolver’s writing so many years ago: the journeys we make without realizing we are on the road. Kingsolver writes with passion and empathy about small lives that grapple with big issues; her novels have always had a social conscience and she is skilled in weaving the intimate with the epic to create a universality of themes.
But Flight Behavior has so very many themes and Kingsolver devotes a lot of plot time telling us about them: class, religion, education, climate change, marriage and infidelity, family, rural vs. urban America, ambition. And she does so in language that is so thick with metaphors, florid descriptions and a play-by-play of the protagonist's daily life that it feels like filler holding up an abstract, incomplete plot.
What I find most surprising and disappointing in Flight Behavior is the cast of caricatures that delves into stereotype. How facile to show the ignorance of a bunch of red-state Bible thumpers in rural Appalachia and to romanticize the exotic and beautiful, educated and kind out-of-towners who arrive to illuminate the disaster.
There are moments of grace, most notably in those scenes which involve Dellarobia Turnbow, the novel’s heroine, and her hapless husband, Cub or her son, Preston. Again, it is in painting these intimate canvases of family and of women finding their voice when the Kingsolver I have loved comes to life.
There is a scene late in Flight Behavior which chronicles a shopping trip to a secondhand warehouse. Dellarobia wends her way through the store, intermittently checking in on her two children while engaging in an external expository conversation with her BFF Dovey and an internal Come to Jesus moment with herself (and therefore, with the reader ). The scene is twenty pages long and it epitomizes much of what doesn’t work for me in this novel. Too much of an author’s political agenda disguising itself as narrative doesn’t make for good story.