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Thu November 8, 2012
Book Reviews

Giving Wing To A Story Of Climate Change

Originally published on Fri May 31, 2013 7:43 am

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.

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Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Nature is a consistent theme in the writing of Barbara Kingsolver, and it takes center stage in her newest novel. It's called "Flight Behavior," and it takes on climate change. But our reviewer, Brian Kimberling, says this novel is not one of Kingsolver's best.

BRIAN KIMBERLING: The book is set in the close future. It's a year of strange weather in Eastern Tennessee, so strange that Kingsolver writes: The neighbor's tomato crop had melted to liquid stench on the vine under the summer's nonstop rains. It's a year when she says the snapping turtles roamed the soggy land looking for higher ground. The word roam made me picture turtles on horseback, but it doesn't matter. It's a slight bit of inelegance in a novel that really has great scope. Kingsolver's premise is that millions of monarch butterflies have appeared on a mountainside in Eastern Tennessee. They're supposed to be spending the winter in Mexico, but they're not, and they probably won't survive the Appalachian snow.

The butterflies are discovered by a married mother of two named Dellarobbia Turnbow, who is on her way to a tryst with a young man when she sees what she thinks is orange fire. The butterflies disrupt her plans, and she spends the rest of the book mingling with newcomers, tourists, scientists and activists. She also navigates the treacheries of her hometown and explores the reasons for her own unhappiness. This domestic gloom and eventual enlightenment are the strongest parts of the book. And Kingsolver puts in some great set pieces here too, like a marital meltdown in a dollar store and a Christmas tree decorated with money.

But the monarch butterflies don't exactly square up with life as we know it. They're supposed to signal fragile beauty, but they also make "Flight Behavior" feel pat and sentimental. Terrible things really are happening in the world we live in. Amphibians, oak trees and bee colonies are dying everywhere. In the face of all that, the butterflies are mildly unconvincing. I would have liked a less hypothetical scenario. In this book, Kingsolver is trying to tell us that ecological catastrophe is just around the corner, but in the end, while the drama is entertaining, the urgency falls just short of credible.

SIEGEL: The new novel from Barbara Kingsolver is called "Flight Behavior." Reviewer Brian Kimberling is finishing his first novel called "Snapper," and you can comment on his review at nprbooks.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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