The mercury hit 100 for ten consecutive days in some places last summer, and the drought of 2012 may be a preview of what climate change will bring: amber waves of extremely short corn. In Barbara Kingsolver's seventh novel Flight Behavior, climate change delivers antithetical weather to eastern Tennessee — such that "the neighbors' tomato crop had melted to liquid stench on the vine under the summer's nonstop rains, and their orchard grew a gray, fungal caul that was smothering the fruit and trees together." The novel is set in a year in the near future in which "the very snapping turtles had dragged themselves from silted ponds and roamed the soggy land looking for higher ground." That verb "roam" tempted this reader to picture the turtles on horseback, but that is a minor infelicity in a novel of great scope.
The book's central premise is that millions of monarch butterflies appear on a mountainside in eastern Tennessee. They have been displaced from their historic wintering site in Mexico by environmental degradation and climate change. But they are unlikely to survive Appalachian snow — catastrophic population loss is certain, and extinction likely. Tourists, entomologists, and activists congregate nearby.
The butterflies are discovered by a married mother-of-two named Dellarobia Turnbow, who is en route to a tryst with a young man. She is not fully aware at the beginning of the book why she is so dissatisfied with her marriage; she is simply ready to wreck it. The butterflies disrupt her plans, and subsequently she mingles with well-heeled butterfly newcomers, navigates the established treacheries of Feathertown, and tentatively probes the reasons for her own discontent. Dellarobia's domestic gloom and gradual enlightenment make a beguiling tale, with some exquisite set pieces such as a marital meltdown in the dollar store, and the sublimely subversive idea of decorating a Christmas tree with money.
The butterflies, on the other hand, like the unrelenting summer rain, do not quite square with life as we know it now. Terrible things are happening ecologically in this new drought-addled world. Forty-one percent of amphibians are currently facing extinction, Sudden oak death is devastating whole ecosystems, and nobody is sure why bee colonies keep suddenly collapsing. Monarch butterflies have symbolic sentimental value as emblems of fragile beauty, but they also make Flight Behavior somewhat speculative, hypothetical – with a suggestion that ecological catastrophe is still around the corner somewhere. Fiction needn't subscribe to a hierarchy of urgency, but this book does, and the butterflies are mildly unconvincing.
Flight Behavior will be published on Election Day after a presidential campaign in which climate change was noticeably absent. In this and throughout the book, Kingsolver is deft with a pointed hint.
Brian Kimberling is the author of Snapper.