At the beginning of Barbara Kingsolver's new novel, Flight Behavior, a bored young woman wants to torpedo her life. Twenty-eight-year-old Dellarobia leaves her two kids with her mother-in-law and marches through the backwoods of their struggling Southern Appalachian farm to spend an illicit afternoon with the young, dumb telephone man. But before she can fling herself into chaos, she stumbles upon a scene of transcendent glory: a valley aflame with monarch butterflies, their overlapping wings creating a rippling wave of beacon and promise. Her parish embraces the butterflies as a sign of their small town's providence. Television reporters smell a cheap feel-good story. Hipster college kids discover a cause. The few worried scientists who camp out behind Dellarobia's house fear doom. Everybody has an agenda, and Dellarobia, whose narrow existence up until now has been defined by a positive pregnancy test at the age of 17, must reclaim her place in an exploded world.
Kingsolver sometimes undercuts her own grace as a storyteller by filling her characters' mouths with clunky polemics about, say, global warming or the class system. Those moments seem inorganic in a story that is otherwise so alive with tension and possibility. But the novel really soars in the exquisitely drawn scenes where a strapped woman feels claustrophobic in a dollar store or panicked during a job interview or wistful for her bright young son's future. Dellarobia is a smart, fierce, messy woman, and one can't help rooting for her to find her wings. B