Posted by: biblioglobal | January 6, 2013

Scientists in fiction (United States, #30)

Flight Behavior by Barbara KingsolverFlight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver

As an American, it’s hard to settle on a single book to represent my own country. I’ve thought about picking a book focusing on Native American life (I just finished Blasphemy by Sherman Alexie and I want to read The Round House by Louise Erdrich) or a book that gives an outsider’s perspective on the United States. (The New York Times had a recent article on a book explaining American culture to Russians that sounded fascinating. Unfortunately it doesn’t seem to be available in English!) I wasn’t originally intending to count Flight Behavior as my book for the United States. I was reading it solely because I love many of Barbara Kingsolver’s books and was excited to read her new one. But I’ve decided it would make an interseting representative of the United States because of its sensitive portrayal of certain cultural divides within the United States.

Flight Behavior is told from the perspective of Dellarobia Turnbow, a mother of two young children living in rural Tennessee. Although she is smart and curious, her education ended with high school, thanks to economic circumstances and a teenage pregnancy and marriage. As a result of a colony of monarch butterflies that has unexpectedly come to roost on the family farm, the Turnbows come into contact with a group of scientists who come to study the butterflies. Flight Behavior is an environmentalist novel, focusing on how climate change affect peoples’ lives. It also takes an interesting perspective on family relationships. What most caught my attention though, is the contrast of cultures between rural Appalachia and the visiting scientists.

My ability to assess Kingsolver’s portrayal of rural Appalachian culture is limited, but I can say from experience that she got the description of the scientists just about right. Reading Dellarobia’s reaction to the scientists, Flight Behavior let me see how my life might look from another perspective. The example that struck me the most was Dellarobia being startled to realize that the graduate students, who she thinks of as kids, are actually her own age. I was startled by her realization also because I also was thinking of the graduate students (and of myself) as younger than her. Somehow, it’s hard as a grad student to see yourself as a real adult, particularly relative to someone with two children, a mother-in-law, and a mortgage payment she can’t afford. I guess that not-a-real-adult feeling rubs off onto other people’s perceptions also.

The science graduate students (and even a post-doc!) don’t play a terribly central role in the story, with their advisor having the more important role (of course!), but they are there in the story. I must be forgetting something, but I can’t actually think of any other novel with science graduate students. Can anyone else come up with one?



  1. Thanks for your review. As someone who also is a fan of Kingsolver, I’ve been wondering about her new book.

    • I think this one is very much a ‘match’ with Prodigal Summer. If you liked that one (which I definitely did), you’ll also like this one.

  2. Interesting choice for your American book! I really like that you didn’t go with one of the stereotypical “Great American Novels” like The Great Gatsby or Catcher in the Rye. This sounds like a great contemporary representation of America, with its class differences and the perceptions people of different backgrounds have of each other, such as the difficulty in thinking of grad students as adults.

    • It’s funny, I didn’t even consider reading any of the “Great American Novels”. I did think about Gone With the Wind, simply because it’s something I feel like I ought to read, but I felt like it would be the wrong book to represent the United States.


  3. As a fellow science graduate student, I know exactly what you mean. I’m in my late 20’s now and I still feel like a college undergraduate. And compared to my friends at home who are married and have children already…I guess I am still sort of a college student. I can’t think of any other novels that prominently feature graduate students, but I think it could be an interesting premise for one!

    • Darn, you were someone I was was hoping might be able to come up with novels with graduate students! It seems like they are in fact quite rare. I find that strange given that half the people I know are graduate students! 🙂

  4. Sounds fascinating. Have you ever read Bastard Out of Carolina? It was one of my surprise reads last year. (I also just purchased my first Kingsolver, The Poisonwood Bible today for Kindle on sale :-D)

    • Nope, I haven’t read Bastard Out of Carolina. Sounds interesting.

      I definitely enjoyed The Poisonwood Bible. At one point I had 3 or 4 copies of it because I kept picking up used copies to give to people. I do think it’s quite different from Barbara Kingsolver’s other books, so on the off chance you don’t like it, you should still give one of her other books a try.

      • I’ll keep that in mind.

  5. I’m also a science grad student, and this sounds right up my alley! I’ll swap you a recommendation: The Marriage Plot (Eugenides) is another book with a science grad student as a central character, and it is excellent.

    • Ah, I’ve read The Marriage Plot actually. You’re right that there are some good science grad school scenes in there. Thanks for the reminder to include that in my list. (It qualifies as a list now because there are two!)

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