Earlier this month, a writer in the Guardian lamented the scarcity of novels about "the most pressing and complex problem of our time": climate change. "We don't want to have this conversation," complained Daniel Kramb, "and neither do most characters in most novels being published."
Imagine if "most characters in most novels" lectured each other about climate change. I'd push the last polar bear off his melting ice floe to avoid that. And who exactly would be converted by these missing environmental stories? Are oil lobbyists just one good climate-change novel away from seeing the error of their ways?
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. Fortunately "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.
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 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.
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 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.
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?
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.
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. It's just trying to illuminate the mysterious interplay of the natural world and our conflicted hearts.