Dellarobia Turnbow is so sick of her life she's willing to wreck it. In Barbara Kingsolver's "Flight Behavior," we meet the 27-year-old mother of two climbing a mountain on her in-laws' Tennessee sheep farm. She's lusting, literally, for more than mindless childcare and a passive, mother-controlled husband. She's parked the kids with Grandma and donned her best cowboy boots to finally consummate one of her crushes.
But at the top of the mountain she is stunned to see acres of woods in vivid, strangely silent, orange flames -- a fire even hotter than the one propelling her. It must be a sign. "It was not too late to undo this mess. Walk down the mountain, pick up those kids. The burning trees were put here to save her."
The mysterious "fire" turns out to be millions of flame-colored monarch butterflies that took a wrong turn on their annual migration. Dellarobia is fascinated. Her in-laws, along with their church, wonder if God hasn't sent the butterflies to stop the Turnbows selling the logging rights to those trees. TV crews appear. International tourists camp out on the mountain. A glamour shot of Dellarobia goes viral.
Soon a genuine scientist turns up in a camper at her ranch house on the edge of Butterfly Central. Dr. Ovid Byron has an accent like Bob Marley after Harvard and looks like no one she's ever met. "Tall, dark, and handsome, but extra tall, extra dark. OK, extra all three." She's smitten. With the man, the science, the glimpse of other possibilities, she cannot say. But that march up the mountain might yet destroy her life.
She finds a sitter so she can help Dr. Byron study the butterflies and soon the promising drama of Dellarobia's personal implosion is swamped by climate change research disguised as dialogue. "A bizarre alteration of a previously stable pattern," Ovid Byron tells her. He could be describing the novel. Global warming right here in River City -- oops, Feathertown, Tenn. The next 300 pages are full of dire warnings about the Earth's destruction. Dellarobia realizes ignorance might really be bliss. Meanwhile the butterflies glow, mate, die. Powerful stuff. If only the human characters saw as much action.
Ms. Kingsolver has formidable gifts; there is much here to praise. Dellarobia's mother-in-law is a wonderful character, a judgmental, Bible-quoting, daughter-in-law's nightmare with a pony-tail of iron-gray hair. At the sheep shearing, Hester Turnbow "looked daunting in a red-checked blouse with pearl snaps and white piping on the yoke ... as if she might later be headed out for a square dance. The festivities never materialized." Her clothes aren't her only incongruity. Hester (the name turns out to be apt) is unloving to her grandchildren, fruits of the wife her son acquired in a shotgun wedding back in high school.
But over the winter of the butterflies, she discloses secrets that force Dellarobia to pay attention. The iron-willed Hester was once another such feisty, smart girl trapped by small-town culture. She is the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. Her sacrifices and conflicting impulses are grudgingly parceled out to Dellarobia so the younger woman can think hard about burning her bridges.
The Jamaican scientist Ovid Bryon is that bridge, and he provides thrills, too. Not with his numbing litany of environmental catastrophe, but with his wife -- or rather, their marriage. The exotic, dark-skinned Juliet, like her husband a college professor, shows up for a conjugal visit to the backyard camper. They come to dinner. Over fresh-slaughtered lamb, the couple laugh affectionately and discuss folk art and word origins in a kitchen more used to talk of sippy cups and the remote control.
As Dellarobia's ox-like husband chews resentfully, the formal Dr. Byron grows loquacious and happy. In a chilling insight, Dellarobia knows that the Ovid she's been fantasizing about "had become himself, in the presence of his wife. With the sense of a great weight settling, she recognized marriage." Her mental ping-pong about whether to stay in her own union or go turns moot. "She was not about to lose it. She'd never had it."
In the best novels, patterns emerge, characters make choices that grow organically from story events, and for one brief moment, order reigns in the universe. In "The Bean Trees," "Pigs in Heaven" and particularly "The Poisonwood Bible," Ms. Kingsolver worked this magic. Her favorite themes of nature, the burdens of cultural privilege and social injustice reappear in "Flight Behavior," but now they're hogging center stage. Her passion for a cause in the real world is so transparent, it undermines our belief in this fictional world; it rends the curtain of illusion. Will our heroine get to college before the endof days? Can global warming have a teensy silver lining? Why worry? We'll all be extinct.
"We are at the top of Niagara Falls, Tina, in a canoe," Dr. Byron harangues a reporter, making clear it isn't nature who's the bad guy here. "We have arrived at the point of an audible roar. Does it strike you as a good time to debate the existence of the falls?" Those who share the author's horror at the world's rush to destroy itself will love this book.
But those who want compelling literary fiction, with realistic characters and high personal stakes that make you flip pages to learn what's next, might find this latest Kingsolver entry more lecture than art, and not what they hoped for in entertainment.
Nan Willard Cappo is a writer living in Squirrel Hill. Her latest novel is "Unaccounted For" (www.nancappo.com).