Birdbrain is a self-published (2014) novel by Virginia Arthur. Clocking in at 500 pages, Birdbrain covers a lot of ground. The novel starts in Michigan in 1982 with 26-year-old Ellie sitting at home, waiting for her husband to love her more than the TV. When she accidentally goes on the wrong day to her church picnic, she discovers a group who loves bird watching, which becomes the catalyst for her divorce. Although she meets new men along the way, including one who loves and waits for her, Ellie is mostly focused on watching birds. Over a year later she eventually returns to college to get a degree in biology, but once she finishes, she realizes that there are two kinds of biologists: the academic who wants to study wildlife to write a paper for recognition, and the field biologist (a dying breed) who tries to do something about the problem of over-development of open areas. Ellie spends a good amount of time in San Diego with her sister and her sister’s boyfriend where Ellie sees that development happens everywhere, which she considers a horrible disease of mankind that breaks her heart.
Unfortunately, the choice of when to go into depth with the plot feels a bit misguided. In the first 175 pages, Ellie gets divorced and discovers she loves watching birds. For about a year she lives with her friend Patty and won’t get a job. We’re told Ellie took $2,000 from her ex-husband when she left, but in what way does this money last for a year? Though I wanted to be patient with Ellie, I grew annoyed with her. There is also a lot of repetition in the first 175 pages, such as telling the same stories and experiences or visiting certain places, which didn’t push the story forward.
However, two characters, both Michigan Department of Fish and Game employees, are introduced during this time, and while it seems convenient that Ellie might fall in love with one of them, she doesn’t and for that I was thankful. Should the author choose such an obvious way to get Ellie, with her newly-broken heart, to “move on,” I would have felt disappointed. Ellie seems in control of her relationship with men, once she’s divorced.
After those 175 pages, Ellie still isn’t a likable person; she decides to go to school for biology, a degree for which her mother is paying, and in the first semester she signs up for two classes she doesn’t need (one of them being “Camping I”) and biology. The day before school starts, Ellie decides she’ll be sleeping through the camping class, which is before her Biology class. I just really didn’t like Ellie.
Once she does get to class, though, I can see her trying to organize her life in a way that no one else around her has, so she’s a pioneer, really, in her small Michigan town. While her friends get married young, have babies, and enjoy trucks and barbecues, Ellie feels jealous but cannot settle for the life she’s told she was “supposed” to lead–and was on the path to lead with her husband.
Ellie visits her sister in California, which shows Ellie that even the open spaces of a desert area are being destroyed in the name of progress. It does take two separate trips to California (once when she starts college and once after she’s graduated) for Ellie to really get moving as a character, once again proving that Birdbrain moves too slowly for its own good. It’s after she graduates and heads west for a visit that Ellie finally battles “progress” in California. She learns that 400 acres of land–full of animals, insects, and plants–are going to be bulldozed to create lots for houses. When Virginia Arthur gets to the heart of a fiction book about biology, her work really shines. Here is an example:
It had been about two weeks since the massacre [of the 400 acres]. Unbeknownst to Ellie, Ben, and Liz, hundreds of people had shown up on the property much to the annoyance of the construction company. All kinds of people cased the place, a few looking to see if the lots were for sale yet. Flowers were thrown out across the new housing pads and roads, or stuck directly into the newly graded land, as if for a dead person. (The fact that most of the flowers strewn on the land were nonnative horticultural plants the species of which would ultimately be included in the water-sucking landscape for the new housing development, seemed fitting somehow).
The author’s almost brutal point that the flowers people used to mourn destroyed land are also harmful because they are not indigenous is a striking point. She shows the ignorance of the common person, no matter how kindhearted.
Keen readers will notice in the above passage that there are some problems with commas. Though I try not to focus on the punctuation in books (an error or two are bound to crop up), self-published works can be some of the worst offenders simply because the author is trying to play too many roles: storyteller, editor, publicist, etc. Comma problems were the most obvious (splices, run-ons), as were the unusual use of quote marks. Instead of thinking in italics, which is common practice, characters thought with quote marks. A tag phrase of “thought so-and-so” at the end of a thought meant I had to go back and reread the passage because I was under the impression he/she said something. The quotes around and inside dialogue got confusing, too. Ellie’s friend Patty asks:
“What do you mean they’ve’ “come over from another country?” What? They all got together and decided they could make higher wages and a better life for themselves here, so they all just flew over?” Patty chuckled.
While I get what Patty is saying here, in many places I had to keep track of quote marks to be sure dialogue ended and began somewhere, though in some cases there wasn’t a closing quote mark. And, I’m not sure why one single quote mark appears every few pages, such as they’ve’. Basically, a small problem like multiple quote marks isn’t, overall, a huge deal, but it is asking the reader to do more work–unnecessarily.
The last 100 pages of the novel were some of the best, because this is where the book becomes humorous and the action takes place. Ellie tries to save the plants and animals in San Diego, which gets a lot of local attention, and the story zeros in on both biology and community, giving it life that earlier parts lack.
After the section about trying to save those 400 acres, Ellie is able to travel across America–from California to Washington and eventually back to Michigan. She is alone, but meets all sorts of people with whom she discusses birds and biology at campgrounds. By this point in the book Ellie is a woman in her early 30s who has an idea of who she is and what she wants, though not a life plan to implement, which seems to suit her okay for a time. She is in control sexually in a way that most women are not in fiction, and I respected her for that. Ellie doesn’t shy away from situations because she is alone; her family and friends may worry, but Ellie isn’t going to wait for a boyfriend or husband to take her hand and be her “protector” through her adventures:
Ellie made a mental note that the two women in her life she loved most seemed to be really curt with her lately and both very anxious for her to “settle down.” She chalked it up to their being jealous and yes, there was an element of this but what she did not fully grasp was that they were also genuinely concerned for her safety; having to worry about her on top of everything else in their lives was an extra burden. It even kind of pissed them off.
Despite the occasional humor near the end (where Arthur really seems to hit her stride) and an intelligent theme for a novel (the author is a field biologist who can speak credibly about the subject), I had trouble getting over inconsistencies in the plot. A character has a baby in one scene and the baby is gone later. A broken radio is returned to its owner only to be in Ellie’s kitchen for repair in a page or two, which then has to be given to the owner again. Patty says it’s good Ellie got a goodnight kiss from her date only to say a little while later that she feels bad that man didn’t get a goodnight kiss. In the end, when Ellie is in her 80s, the author seems to have forgotten the dates and ages she established: if Ellie is divorced at 26 in 1982 and is single into her 30s, it’s not possible in the end for her to become a widow at 64–after 40 years of marriage. And if the story ends with Ellie in her 80s, it’s important to note that readers are now in the future, somewhere around year 2040. How would development and biology and environmental concerns be different so far into the future when policies change and lands are destroyed so quickly today? It seems suspiciously like 2015 when Ellie is in her 80s.
I kept waiting for the book to be how it was described on Goodreads and in the press release: parts Tom Robbins, TC Boyle, Barbara Kingsolver, Pam Houston, Ed Abbey, Vine Deloria, and John Irving. Personally, I feel it’s a mistake for authors to compare their works to famous writers because readers go in with certain expectations that are almost never met (one of the reasons I don’t do such comparisons in my reviews) and fail to see the originality of the book they hold in their hands.
Overall, Birdbrain still has a lot of promise, which is the beauty of self-publishing; it can be edited. I loved the momentum, humor, and character development–in the last stretch–but had I not been reviewing the book (I always finish a book I review), I wouldn’t have gotten past 100 pages.
*I want to thank Virginia Arthur for sending me a copy of her novel in exchange for an honest review. I have no personal, familial, or professional relationship to this author.