Many claim that listening to a novel versus reading it can make a difference in one’s opinion of the work. Indeed, the listening experience can be a nice change to the more customary cracking of the spine. And especially, when the individual performing the audio version is talented in not only narrating the story, but also skilled in modulating their voice as a means to portray different characters. In this particular case, the performer for the audio version of Flight Behavior also happens to be the novel’s author, Barbara Kingsolver. She is indeed a master story teller.
In Flight Behavior, Kingsolver employs a tone of melancholy in order to patiently tell her fictional tale centered on change and adjustments – in oneself, in relationships, and in the world around us. Kingsolver borrows from the controversial subject of Climate Change in order to venture into other topics that are similarly contentious in nature when affected by change. Changes of consequence in marital commitments, family loyalties, and/or one’s belief system, would no doubt trigger considerable adjustments to those affected. Similarly, significant shifts in the environment that alter familiar patterns would also require suitable adjustments. The questioning of these changes – be they gradual, abrupt, unforeseen, inevitable, etc. – are all folded into the novel’s story line.
At the core of Flight Behavior, lies an unusual and unexpected change in the migratory pattern of monarch butterflies. The erosion of their customary winter habitat forces the monarch butterflies to instead travel – by the millions – to an entirely new location in order to weather out the harsh season. Yet the new location is vulnerable to freezing temperatures which places the existence of the species at risk. Climate change is believed to be the root cause in setting this new and unstable migratory pattern in motion but not without skepticism. The characters within the novel assess, or dismiss, the phenomenon based on their various beliefs — religious, scientific, indifference, or a combination thereof. Parallel to the plight of these butterflies, the narrative simultaneously unfolds the erosion of relationships between the characters. They too are affected by unexpected changes in the course of their daily lives. Illness, adultery, stagnant marriages, the unraveling of family secrets, and failing sources of income negatively impact the characters. As each character unpacks whether the changes thrust upon them were indeed unexpected or more realistically inevitable, much like the monarch butterflies, the characters are forced to make adjustments accordingly. Some decide to take flight and risk exploring new territory while others resign themselves to remain tethered to their circumstances as the world around them evolves – for better or worse. The scale of which dilemma is more difficult to measure – that of the characters or the butterflies – is difficult to gauge since one is on an individual basis while the other is on a global level. Nevertheless, the narrator makes the point that changes in the environment, especially drastic ones, ultimately inform the existence, or extinction, of any life form on the planet.
There are several passages in Flight Behavior on the science of climate change that are a bit daunting. Listening to the novel however, renders such sections in the narrative easy to grasp. (I for one have no shame in admitting that I put the rewind button to good use.) Kingsolver’s various degrees in biology and her experience working as a Scientist, were certainly reflected on the pages (or CDs) of Flight Behavior. Her credentials at the very least lend an area of expertise worthy of attention even though she uses a work of fiction in order to raise awareness on the topic of climate change. She does not however exploit Flight Behavior to draw any conclusions on climate change one way or the other. The reader/listener is left to draw his/her own conclusions. As for the characters, with their not so uncommon troubles and stories of human interest, provide an engaging story line alongside that of the butterflies. So much so, that I arrived at work just a little late or stayed in my driveway just a little longer in order to hear the end of the novel’s section that I was listening to. If you have ever listened to a novel, you know exactly what I am talking about…
Next read: Beneath a Marble Sky by John Shors