In the opening pages Dellarobia Turnbow climbs the mountain behind her home in her genuine calfskin leather cowboy boots, bought at Second Time Around, which pinch her feet as much as her marriage pinches her soul. She is going to meet Jimmy, the ‘telephone man’ who rubs the ends of her hair and holds her face and kisses her as every wife secretly longs to be kissed even if it is not by her husband.
Perhaps it matters not if we don’t immediately know how her tryst turns out for we are distracted, like Dellarobia, by the glittering movement of fire in the trees. “The forest blazed with its own internal flame…Brightness of a new intensity moved up the valley in a rippling wave, like the disturbed surface of a lake. Every bough glowed with an orange blaze. “Jesus God,” she said again. No words came to her that seemed sane. Trees turned to fire, a burning bush. Moses came to mind, and Ezekiel, words from Scripture that occupied a certain space in her brain but no longer carried honest weight, if they ever had. Burning coals of fire went up and down among the living creatures.” (See Ezekiel 1:13, and know that I love how Barbara flawlessly intersperses scripture within her text.)
She climbs down the mountain forever changed. Some think she has seen a vision, and perhaps she has. She begins to see a glimpse of the life she could have, if its patterns had just followed a different course. The monarch butterflies which have spectacularly landed in Tennessee, from Mexico, illuminate a striking parallel to Dellarobia’s life. For who hasn’t landed in a place which feels all wrong?
Now more than ever she questions everything about her life: her husband’s slow, methodical, passive ways; her mother and father-in-laws’ sheep farm in rural Tennessee, her ten years of marriage and lack of college education all brought about in an effort to make things right. She mourns the loss of the son that precipitated the need for her marriage in the first place; she mourns the life she finds herself living.
Isn’t questioning one’s life the easiest thing to do? Who looks at the details of her life, the petty, daily drudgery, and says, “This is exactly the life I want to live”? Finding oneself in the midst of disappointment, in falling short of one’s dreams, is inevitable. What’s remarkable is how one handles that realization. For there are only two options; to stay and stick it out, or to take flight. I’d like to think that I had more tenacity than a butterfly, an insect which is beautiful and regal and fragile, but all the same soulless. I’d like to think that my flight behavior wouldn’t serve to strengthen me alone, regardless of the routes I felt I had to take.
This is deeply moving novel, a novel written in such a way that every word pierces my heart. I know Dellarobia. I know the life she’s living. I ache with her at the choices she confronts. Flight Behavior made me re-examine my own life choices and wonder at the justification of others’. While crying, literally, for Dellarobia.