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3 new novels about young people on a mission

Three young people embark on missions – to change their life, in service to their country, and to solve a 500-year-old mystery – in this week's fiction roundup. Set decades and thousands of miles apart, the main characters don't have much in common, except a fear that they're really not the right ones for the job.

- Yvonne ZippMonitor fiction critic

1. 'Flight Behavior,' by Barbara Kingsolver

As harbingers of doom go, it's hard to think of one prettier than a hillside full of butterflies.

That's what Dellarobia Turnbow encounters on her way to a tryst in a hunting shack with a 22-year-old named Jimmy (“you wouldn't wreck your life for a Jimmy,” she thinks ruefully).

In Barbara Kingsolver's new novel, Flight Behavior, climate change has interrupted the migratory patterns of monarch butterflies, causing them to set down in Appalachia instead of the mountain in Mexico where the insects have always congregated.

Dellarobia, who wasn't wearing her glasses because they were too unsexy, sees the butterflies first as a “vale of fire:” “[T]he mountain seemed to explode with light. Brightness of a new intensity moved up the valley in a rippling wave, like the disturbed surface of a lake. Every bough glowed with an orange blaze. … Trees turned to fire, a burning bush.”

Taking it as a sign, the 27-year-old mom of two turns around and marches back down the mountain to reclaim her life.

Her husband, Cub, thinks they're a miracle; her father-in-law, Burley, regards them as a nuisance; and her mother-in-law, Hester, isn't sure what to think, especially after a doctored picture of Dellarobia as “Our Lady of the Butterflies” goes viral.

To Ovid Byron, the entomologist who comes to town after Dellarobia's find hits the news, the change could well represent the end of days, at least for the monarch. He and his team pitch camp next to the Turnbows' barn, working frantically before a killing frost can wipe out the butterflies.

Kingsolver won the Orange Prize in 2010 for “The Lacuna,” which traveled from Mexico to North Carolina over the course of decades and included such larger-than-life figures as artist Frida Kahlo and her husband, muralist Diego Rivera. “Flight Behavior” is more tightly focused.

For those not eager to be hectored at in their free time, not to worry: “Flight Behavior” is not a thinly disguised lecture about the dangers of greenhouse gas emissions (although a confrontation between Byron and a TV reporter is perhaps less climactic than planned). Kingsolver, who studied as a scientist and whose nonfiction “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle” chronicled her family's attempt to eat locally for a year, makes her position clear, but she is telling a story first. "Flight Behavior" is by far the most accessible climate-change novel I've ever read. 

Nor is “Flight Behavior” patronizing toward its main character.

When an officious do-gooder tries to give Dellarobia a pamphlet on ways to emit less greenhouse gas, she turns the tables, pointing out that poverty may make her one of the most carbon-neutral Americans out there. (Eat less in restaurants? She hasn't had a meal out in more than two years. Don't buy bottled water? Who'd be fool enough to pay for water when the well is just fine?) Kingsolver, who lives in Appalachia, also does a nice job detailing what lack of money in the U.S. actually looks like, as opposed to pop culture versions that put picturesque rags on middle-class life.

“After mating, the female tears off her wings and crawls in a hole to start her own colony,” Dellarobia's son Preston reads out of an old encyclopedia about the butterflies. To his mom, who got pregnant at 17 and gave up on college, that sounds pretty true to life.

“It had to mean something,” Dellarobia thinks about the visitation of butterflies, a sentiment that takes on the air of a prayer the more she regards the last 10 years of her life.


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