Monday, May 16, 2011

Book Review: Prodigal Summer

Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver was my book club's pick for May.  And yes, I used reading it as an excuse to not complete A Tale of Two Cities and Jane Eyre yet again.  I promise I will have those two done soon...just not this month.  My book club had previously read Kingsolver's books The Poisonwood Bible and Animal, Vegetable, Miracle so expectations were high.

Prodigal Summer gradually weaves together the lives of three characters who live in rural Appalachia --- forty something forest ranger Deanna, recent widow and insect expert Lusa, and aging farmer Garnett--- during a warm and apparently very sexy summer.  Deanna, who is portrayed as a hermit who took the forest ranger job on a remote part of the mountain so she would have less time with people and more time with coyotes, takes up nearly immediately with a twenty something year old hunter named Eddie Bondo.  Other than their love of being in the woods, these two couldn't have been more mismatched.  She wants to save things; he wants to kill things.  Clearly not a good start.  In the meantime in the valley below the mountain, city girl/bug extraordinaire Lusa finds herself abruptly widowed when her farmer husband Cole is killed in a trucking accident.  Family angst ensues while his not very welcoming family tries to glean whether or not she's a gold digger, and she tries to figure out where she belongs.  And a few doors down, old man Garnett is busy battling it out with his organic apple growing neighbor Nannie over whether or not he can spray his weeds.
These stories initially seemed to be extremely disconnected (other than the characters living in the same area), but by the end Ms. Kingsolver reveals how their lives have been intertwined all along.  

Overall, I enjoyed the book.  Kingsolver's tone is always soothing to me.  While some members of my club found her long dissertations about insects to be tedious, they didn't really trouble me.  What did trouble me is the way she integrated her personal beliefs about the environment into the book.  I get it --- the author is an environmentalist who believes in organic farming and eating local.  I knew this already from reading Animal, Vegetable, Miracle.  I agree with a lot of her personal philosophy.  My problem was with the way she spoon fed her beliefs via her characters to the reader.  There was a lot of Nannie explaining to Garnett how they were damaging the environment with pesticides.  Even more environmentalist ranting with Deanna defending the coyotes' right to exist to Eddie.  Then there was Lusa explaining to her niece in painful detail about how using a general pesticide kills predator insects too and how this just made the undesirable bugs' population grow even more.  It was just too much.  There were times as a reader where you felt like the author was treating you like a child who had to be convinced to eat her vegetables.

I took some heat from my fellow book club member Allison about why I had a problem with all the gratuitous sex in our other recent club pick A Reliable Wife (my review is here) but I didn't with the amount of sex in Prodigal Summer.  Yes, there is sex in this book.  Yes, there is a discussion with Deanna's co-worker about how many condoms she keeps in her remote cabin (handy for when Eddie drops in).  I think it comes down to Kingsolver's tone vs. Goolrick's.  Kingsolver handled it in a more emotional and relationship based fashion, while Goolrick came off like he was allowing his characters to engage in his personal fantasies.  Who knows?  Maybe Barbara Kingsolver wanted to knock boots with a young hot hunter in the woods.  Her writing just came off as less explicit overall than Goolrick's.

In the end I felt the three main characters, like the prodigal son of the Bible, had found their homes again.  If you have enjoyed Kingsolver's other books, you'll like this one too.  But even if you haven't read her books, it was an enjoyable read with a satisfying ending.  What more can you ask for?

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