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.