Length: 448 pages
Dellarobia Turnbow is a restless farm wife who gave up her own plans when she accidentally became pregnant at seventeen. Now, after a decade of domestic disharmony on a failing farm, she has settled for permanent disappointment but seeks momentary escape through an obsessive flirtation with a younger man. As she hikes up a mountain road behind her house to a secret tryst, she encounters a shocking sight: a silent, forested valley filled with what looks like a lake of fire. She can only understand it as a cautionary miracle, but it sparks a raft of other explanations from scientists, religious leaders, and the media. The bewildering emergency draws rural farmers into unexpected acquaintance with urbane journalists, opportunists, sightseers, and a striking biologist with his own stake in the outcome. As the community lines up to judge the woman and her miracle, Dellarobia confronts her family, her church, her town, and a larger world, in a flight toward truth that could undo all she has ever believed.
Here’s what I thought:
Kingsolver is one of those rare authors who manages to write books that are both literary and highly readable. I’ve enjoyed her writing for years, both fiction and non-fiction, and this latest novel is a perfect blend as she uses the fictional story of a young Southern woman to deal with all too real environmental and societal issues.
The main character, Dellarobia, has grown up in the small, rural town where she now lives with her husband and two children. Her world is a very limited one in which she doesn’t seem to see much farther than her own front porch. She knows that something is missing, however, and tries to fill the void in her life with the temporary pleasure of a potential affair. Her fling, however, never makes it off the ground because instead she finds that the majority of the wintering population of North American monarch butterflies have landed quite literally in her backyard, and this extraordinary occurance changes everything.
You never knew which split second might be the zigzag bolt dividing all that went before from everything that comes next.
The presence of the butterflies is amazing, a true miracle of nature, which Dellarobia and her church community take as a sign from God until the arrival of the scientists, who gradually teach us that what seems like a miracle is actually a sign of biological disaster–a global climate in a state of clear disorder and decline and that is bringing the butterflies down with it.
Although the hypothetical situation which Kingsolver introduces to address problems of global warming, climate change and their attendant results is an interesting one, there are times when the writing is a bit heavy-handed in the effort to get its point across. Just as the small Southern town where Dellarobia lives is portrayed as being scientifically ignorant (the local high school science teacher preferring to let the students play basketball instead of teaching them anything), so I started to feel as if Kingsolver must have a pretty low opinion of her readers’ scientific knowledge in general. And while she may have a point, it would have been nice to have been given a little more credit.
The book really starts to shine in the second half, in which the Dellarobia begins working with the scientists to study the butterflies. Through focusing on problems that are bigger than her own, she seems to find clarity in her own life, and as she, the town, and the larger world hope for the butterflies’ survival, so Dellarobia begins to see hope in her own situation, and she begins making preparations for her own flight.
There is some beautiful, poignant writing that had me fighting back tears as Dellarobia comes to grips with what she has lost and is yet to lose (and potentially gain). There are no easy answers to the situations that the book presents, no clear and certain happy endings, but there is hope, or at least the will to keep fighting for survival. In a scene in which Dellarobia and her husband, Cub, are trying to save the life of a baby lamb born prematurely on the farm, Cub tries to tell Dellarobia that there is no point trying to save the lamb, who is already dead:
Cub retreated to the familiar grounds of remorse and insufficiency, the terms of his existance, ratified by marriage. He could construct defeat from any available material and live inside it, but for once Dellarobia didn’t go there with him. She was going ahead.
The presence of hope, the human instinct for self-preservation, makes the dire scientific outlook that the book presents that much more resonant. Highly recommended.
Thanks so much to Edelweiss and Harper for providing me with a review copy of this book.
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