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.