This novel left me confused, but thinking.
At the outset it seemed mostly long and slow and depressing. A book, set in the south, with a female protagonist old before her time, with nothing much to hope for. And this is definitely all true. And I never did totally warm to the protagonist. And it was a book about nature. So it shouldn’t really have stood a chance with me. But somehow it stuck.
Firstly, it stuck, because I became geekily fascinated by the monarch butterflies and the changes to their flight path, caused by climate change. You can’t really enjoy this book if you aren’t something of an information sponge, as the sheer amount of data divulged is astonishing. Luckily, I am a geek, so that was fine.
I also think it stuck because it gave me an insight into a life totally at odds with my own. A small town life, governed by seasons and farming cycles and local gossip and church on Sunday. And I understand that there are plenty of novels like this. But the narrator of this one was the perfect insider / outsider: sometimes part of the crowd, and sometimes a little apart and hyper-aware of the behaviours of those around her.
“They all attended Hester’s church, which Dellarobia viewed as a complicated pyramid scheme of moral debt and credit resting ultimately on the shoulders of the Lord, but rife with middle managers.”
“Being a stay-at-home mom was the loneliest kind of lonely, in which she was always and never by herself.”
Finally, I think it stuck because it made me think.
Now, I am not sure the author intended to make me think. I feel like this whole novel is expressed as a classic education and opportunity = good, poverty and religion = bad dichotomy. Throughout the novel, those who believe in God, who challenge climate change, who are more old fashioned, less educated and less wealthy, are self-righteously, insidiously lumped together and labelled “wrong”. You cannot be one, the book tells you, without the other. Well, unless you are extra, extra special. Further, it implies this is caused by powers beyond your control. Both the wealthy and the poor in the novel are guilty of these assumptions, although they express them in their own terms:
“‘I’d say the teams get picked and then the belief get handed around,’ she said. ‘Team camo, we get the right to bear arms and John Deere and the canning jars and tough love and taking care of our own. The other side wears I don’t know what, something expensive. They get recycling and population control and lattes and as many second chances as anybody wants…. the environment got assigned to the other team. Worries like that are not for people like us’.”
“The theory of the territorial divide. With some confusion, Dellarobia understood this was her theory, he was attributing it to her, though the terms he used were unfamiliar: climate-change denial functioning like folk art or some people, he said, a way of defining survival in their own terms. But it’s not indigenous, Juliet argues. It’s like a cargo cult. Introduced from the outside, corporate motives via conservative media. But now it’s become fully identified with the icons of local culture, so it’s no longer up for discussion.”
For a book which goes to great lengths to oppose any belief in God, it seems to focus on pre-ordination in another sense. There is a feeling that life, for each of us, is fixed and cannot be changed or challenged. That is the way of nature, the novel implies. And even at the end of the novel, when the protagonist appears to make a new, alternative choice, her options remain so constrained, so small.
But I guess this is why this novel made me think. What appears small to me would completely alter the course of the protagonist’s life. In some ways what this novel made me do is reconsider the idea that we are all, to a large degree ‘victims’ of circumstance. And further, to consider whether the only reason I don’t wholly believe that is that my ‘circumstance’ allowed me an almost boundless frontier to play with. I guess it reminded me that this isn’t true for most, and that their highs and lows, fears and expectations are none the lesser for it.