Actually, unlike our cowardly presidential candidates, a number of major novelists have raised alarms about the Earth’s health, but novels aren’t particularly effective at articulating political positions or scientific facts. The weakest sections of Jonathan Franzen’s “Freedom” are those that hector us about the loss of songbirds. T.C. Boyle, Lydia Millet and Margaret Atwood are already preaching to the overheated choir. Two years ago, when Ian McEwan published, “Solar,” his novel about rising CO2 levels, he admitted that “the best way to tell people about climate change is through nonfiction.”
Now the sun rises on Barbara Kingsolver’s “Flight Behavior,” a climate-change novel described by the publisher as “her most accessible and commercial book to date” — the literary equivalent of whole-wheat pasta your kids will love! There are, of course, reasons to be skeptical. In 2000, Kingsolver established the Bellwether Prize to promote, among other liberal goals, novels that “advocate the preservation of nature.” Fortunately, her own books have been more subtle than the earnest Bellwether winners, and “Flight Behavior” is not the op-ed-in-story-form that one might fear.
The book’s success stems from Kingsolver’s willingness to stay focused on a conflicted young woman and her faltering marriage, while a strange symptom of the degraded environment overwhelms her remote Tennessee town. In the opening pages, we meet Dellarobia Turnbow, “lighting out her own back door to wreck her reputation.” She’s a mother of two, walking alone up a mountain to commit adultery with a 22-year-old telephone repairman. “Her betrayals shocked her,” Kingsolver writes. “It was like watching some maddened, unstoppable, and slightly cuter version of herself on television, doing things a person could never do with just normal life.”
There’s a propulsive moral tension in this opening scene, which is suddenly heightened by a vision. Before Dellarobia consummates her woodland tryst, she sees the whole mountainside on fire — blazing like Moses’ burning bush. “The flame now appeared to lift from individual treetops in showers of orange sparks, exploding the way a pine log does in a campfire when it’s poked. The sparks spiraled upward in swirls like funnel clouds. Twisters of brightness against gray sky.”But there’s no smoke and no sound — a spiritual revelation that changes Dellarobia’s heart and sends her scurrying back to her drab home.
Only later does she learn that what she took to be flames were, in fact, tens of millions of monarch butterflies. Thrown off course by climate change, the majestic insects have mistakenly landed here, behind Dellarobia’s house, instead of their usual winter sanctuary in Mexico.
Scientific probability aside, it’s an ingenious idea, and it makes for an eerie and gorgeous backdrop for this story about a woman emerging from her own chrysalis of ignorance and discontent. Dellarobia has been stuck in a bland marriage since she was 17, constantly fantasizing about taking flight, but the arrival of the monarchs transforms her life. Her church regards her testimony about the butterflies as a sign of grace. For the first time, she wins some begrudging respect from her hardhearted mother-in-law. Local and national reporters descend on Dellarobia’s water-logged sheep farm and transform her into an Internet meme. Tourists and wacky environmentalists take pilgrimages to her door. And a lepidopterist who’s been studying the butterfly migration for years sets up shop with his grad students in her barn.
Despite the elements of absurdity here, Kingsolver plays none of this for laughs or satire. She takes her time — probably too much time — and carefully draws the intricate ecosystem of faith, farming and debt in small-town America. Church-going Christians make such easy targets in literary fiction, and Kingsolver has written before, in “The Poisonwood Bible,” about the nastier side of religious obstinacy. But in “Flight Behavior,” the church is a moderating and inspiring influence, supported by dedicated but thoroughly realistic believers. In fact, there’s a marked absence of villains throughout this story, which, frankly, saps its drama a bit: no corrupt ministers or rapacious developers; Dellarobia’s unambitious husband is boring but never unkind; even Dellarobia’s bitter mother-in-law evolves into one of the more complicated characters.
What interests Kingsolver most is the metamorphosis that Dellarobia undergoes as she befriends the scientist in charge of figuring out what sent these monarchs so far off track. Without a college education or a computer in the house, she feels stupid and embarrassed around this brilliant man, but he’s eager to explain his work, which is both fascinating and, in its implications, deeply depressing. How will a young woman who fantasizes about leaving Appalachia and her moribund marriage react to learning that she lives on a wrecked planet?
Kingsolver is particularly astute about the blind spots created by extreme differences in class and education. (A tony environmentalist advises Dellarobia to bring her own Tupperware for leftovers when she eats out. She snaps back: “I’ve not eaten at a restaurant in over two years.”) Among many things, Kingsolver illustrates that climate-change denial, which strikes so many intelligent people as ignorant or self-destructive, is often a defense mechanism against overwhelming despair. And some of the sharpest scenes in the book critique the way journalists distort and neuter scientific discourse to satisfy what they imagine are their audience’s limitations.
Still, as in her previous novel, “The Lacuna,” Kingsolver has trouble maintaining forward momentum. “Flight Behavior” is never dull, but the energy leaks out of the story, which sometimes seems allergic to its own drama. And for a heroine reputed to have a wandering eye, Dellarobia has a remarkably low libido. This may be the saintliest novel ever predicated on the persistent temptation of adultery.
But even if the sheets don’t heat up, the earth does. Kingsolver has written one of the more thoughtful novels about the scientific, financial and psychological intricacies of climate change. And her ability to put these silent, breathtakingly beautiful butterflies at the center of this calamitous and noisy debate is nothing short of brilliant. “Flight Behavior” isn’t trying to reform recalcitrant consumers or make good liberals feel even more pious about carpooling — so often the purview of environmental fiction — it’s just trying to illuminate the mysterious interplay of the natural world and our own conflicted hearts.
Charles is The Washington Post’s fiction editor. You can follow him on Twitter: @RonCharles.