SCIENTISTS can make great writers. You don't hear that sentiment bandied about much—entomologists are not exactly known for creative-writing acumen—but their eye for detail and ability to parse what all those bits of minutiae add up to can make for an engrossing novel in the right hands. And Barbara Kingsolver's hands are perfect. The seasoned novelist and former biologist makes the bridge between hard and soft sciences look like a gossamer rainbow in her new novel Flight Behavior. It's a rare author, indeed, who takes the gloom 'n' doom themes of global warming, science vs. religion, and the poverty divide and makes them palatable, relatable, and bittersweet.
Flight Behavior's shining star is protagonist Dellarobia Turnbow. She's a bored housewife and mother of two young kids in rural Tennessee, where she entertains fantasies of affairs with men she meets on her errands. She's smart, but uneducated—a thriving mind with no outlet, stuck in a loveless marriage on a small sheep farm. Dellarobia is hell-bent on consummating one of her crushes, but en route to the rendezvous she chances upon millions of monarch butterflies dripping from the trees on her Appalachian property. It's proclaimed something of a miracle by Dellarobia's church, and soon followed by the arrival of a prominent scientist and throngs of sightseers and environmental activists.
But it's the worrisome nature of why the butterflies have strayed from their normal migration that sets Dellarobia's world on its teeth, with scientific, religious, and philosophical ramifications for everyone in her small town, and ultimately the world. As Dellarobia bemoans, "Why did that one rare, spectacular thing in her life have to be a sickness of nature?" The trappings of Dellarobia's narrow life start to slough off as she volunteers with the scientific studies being conducted in her backyard, even as her husband's family are in global-warming denial, maintaining that "Weather is the Lord's business" as Tennessee floods around them. Dellarobia's inquisitive, formerly dormant mind begins to show signs of health and prosperity even as the drenched and rotting earth around her crumbles. She begins to comprehend the ravages of global warming and the possibility of a species' extinction on her very doorstep, but also to understand the truths of herself—and she doesn't despair. She picks herself up and starts anew, a little rain-soaked and sad, gathering data and considering the big picture—just like a scientist.