Thursday, June 27, 2013

Book review - ‘Flight Behaviour’ and the ‘Lives of Girls and Women’

Whilst there are many obvious differences between these two novels, there are a few pertinent similarities or connections which make a joint book review interesting. Barbara Kingsolver’s ‘Flight Behaviour’ takes a snap shot of a young woman’s life in rural USA during a freak climate change event: the catastrophically-altered migration path of the beautiful Monarch Butterfly (a fictional but possible event, according to the author’s research). Alice Munro’s ‘The Lives of Girls and Women’, contrastingly, narrates the progression into womanhood of a young woman from rural Canada, in a more gradual, biographical style. The pace and the style of storytelling in the two books are quite different, but similarities arise when we look into how both authors explore the opportunities and expectations placed on these young women in their small country towns.

From the first pages of ‘Flight Behaviour’, Kingsolver depicts her main character, Dellarobia, as being very unhappy with her current life- with its rural poverty, mundane daily chores and uninspiring husband. It is only slowly, throughout the book, however, that we are given to know the circumstances that led Dellarobia to this place in her life. In highschool Dellarobia was hailed as a smart girl, with a bright future and college prospects. These plans were stopped short, though, when she became pregnant in the last year of highschool. With little other options or family support, she married the child’s father and assumed the farm-wife life that was set out for her. Munro’s main character, Del Jordan, similarly, was considered a bright girl, who was expected to go to college and ‘escape’ the country life. Her plans fell short when she became infatuated with a less than supportive boyfriend in her final highschool year and failed to gain a much needed scholarship to college.

The two main similarities between the lives of these two women (apart from their names) are, firstly, the limitations that poverty can place on life choices (eg the need for a scholarship to go to college for Del), and, secondly, the limitations that society’s expectations can place on the lives and roles of women. Despite being intelligent girls with college prospects, both Del Jordan and Dellarobia found their desired futures altered by their relationships with young men. For Dellarobia, pregnancy meant a quick marriage and an automatic assumption that college was no longer an option. For Del Jordan, the expectations of her boyfriend that she was the ‘right’ wife material (eg one who would naturally give up her study time to have lunch with his family etc) meant that she failed her scholarship exams.

While the influence of Del Jordan’s boyfriend’s expectations was certainly more subtle than the influence of family expectation for Dellarobia, both stories explore the way that education (and the future this can bring) is often assumed to be incompatible with the life of a ‘wife’. These two books, then, raise very interesting questions about the ways that society’s norms mould not only the lives of girls and women, but also their own resistance to these pressures. These are themes that, unfortunately, are not confined to small country towns in North America where these two books are set.

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