It’s rare that I don’t even finish a book, but Barbara Kingsolver’s lates tnovel, Flight Risk, made me feel so depleted of energy it was time to put it down and return it to the library. I was a flight risk from its pages, that’s for sure. And that’s a shame, because Kingsolver’s prose is worth study. She has a gift for crafting fine sentences; I admire fine craftsmanship, especially when it’s within my own profession. But beautiful prose cannot mask a thinly disguised political agenda, cliched characters and dreadful dialogue that make the pages seem as if they’re dragging on forever.
The book follows Dellarobia, a house wife in a depressed Appalachian community who strikes out one day to have an affair with the telephone repairman. She’s agreed to an assignation near an old shed on the family’s sheep farm but as she walks to meet her prospective lover, she sees what she believes is a vision of fire. It turns out not to be fire but monarch butterflies – millions of them. Instead of migrating to Mexico, the butterflies have decided to congregate on the hillside of the family farm.
I don’t much like Dellarobia. I don’t have sympathy for her, and she just confuses me as a character. We learn that she has an overbearing, nasty mother in law who hen pecks her son and bosses them all around. When Del leaves her children with her mother in law, Mom in Law from hell doesn’t even bother changing the baby’s diaper. I get the impression that nobody in the family cares much about changing diapers. All around is squalor. Dirty house, sticky kids, Del not even having new shoes.
Okay, I get it. The family is poor. But some poor people are not dirty. The opposite, in fact. They take great pains to care for what they have. Del is a full time mother, but you’d be hard pressed to find her doing anything resembling housework. She whines, complains, and daydreams about sleeping with the phone repairman. She gets stupid text messages from her best friend. She tries to use her brain in an evening Bible study course but gets shamed out of it by the congregation.
The family is facing logging their timber, which – gasp, horror – is seen as bad! Now let me stop here and say that I live on a timber farm near the Blue Ridge Mountains. Kingsolver’s characters live in Tennessee, I’m in Virginia, but I’m very familiar with logging now that I’ve moved into the area. Yet, it’s distressing to see forest clear cut. I don’t like it, but it’s necessary. The pines grown for the timber industry are fast growing trees that take 10-20 years to reach marketable size. Cutting them down is necessary.
Enter the butterflies. They save the day, literally, because now that they are on the farm, logging is halted. People start showing up to see them. A black scientist from New Mexico arrives who studies butterflies. And…
Well, it is here that I put the book down, resigned to the fact that this wasn’t getting any better. There’s such an underlying condescension that seeps through the finely crafted prose that I just couldn’t read any more. Del’s husband, Cub, is slack-jawed with amazement (cue Country Yokel music) that the man seated with them at table went to college. He’s never met a college man before! Oh please, give me a break. Maybe I’m spoiled because I live in a rural community that boasts two fine universities, but the thought that a farmer is “amazed” by a college man in this day and age just boggles the mind.
Del is unlikeable, Cub is a doormat, her mother in law is a harridan, and the only likable character so far is Bobby, the preacher, and the professor eating tuna casserole at her diner table. I like her whining children better than I like her. Heck, I like the family’s sheep dogs better than I like her.
Global warming may be happening, but I’m not ready to cry big crocodile tears over it. Throughout the centuries, the earth has warmed and cooled. The famine of 1788 and 1789 prompted the French revolution; the weather pattern we are in today is, according to meteorologist, very similar to one in the 1950s. I remember the 1970s and magazine covers predicting the next great Ice Age. Now everyone thinks the earth is warming so fast that parrots will roost in Antarctica. I give up. I don’t need a novelist to beat the drum for global warming. We have Al Gore and his ilk for that.
So I didn’t finish this book, which I suppose makes my review invalid in some eyes. But I just couldn’t take the characters anymore. I want to feel for people, and Dellarobia is the least likable heroine I’ve encountered in a long time. Unless you’re a die-hard Kingsolver fan, I’d skip this one.
Disclaimer: This is an unpaid review. I read a library copy of the book. I did not finish the book.