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Thoughts on “Prodigal Summer” by Barbara Kingsolver

Barbara Kingsolver’s Prodigal Summer crossed my path at a library sale. I finally took it off my shelf because, after reading several books that I found merely ok, I wanted to sink myself into something bound to be good.

About the Book:

Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver cover (erinreads.com)The setting: Zebulon County, in the mountains of Appalachia. Three characters are living out their lives, determinedly walking the paths they’ve landed on.

There is Deanna, more comfortable with the animal kingdom than her own kind, who has chosen the solitary life of a forest ranger high on Zebulon Mountain. There is Lusa, an educated and well-traveled young woman whose marriage to a Zebulon County native — the only son in a family of older sisters — has landed her in wholly unfamiliar territory and among resentful and overwhelming in-laws. And there is Garnett Walker III, a crotchety old man whose sole reasons for living appear to be his ongoing feud with his equally elderly organic apple-growing neighbor and his quest to create a blight-resistant chestnut tree.

As Kingsolver spins out her story, we spend one exquisite summer with these three and the lives they inhabit.

My Thoughts:

My hopes for a great read were not disappointed. I was, in fact, a little surprised by just how much I enjoyed Prodigal Summer. I liked Animal, Vegetable, Miracle and The Poisonwood Bible quite a lot, but I do believe Prodigal Summer may have surpassed them both.

One thing I loved about the book was how incredibly real it felt. We’ve all read novels that feel like novels, maybe because of a particular writing style or way of dealing with characters, or the manner in which it’s been edited, what’s been revealed or concealed. But Prodigal Summer simply unravels, coming off the spool as the story unfolds. It’s technically told in the limited third person, with the perspective shifting between the three main characters and their individual story lines. But more than simply taking up a character’s story, Kingsolver seems to slip inside their heads. The result is free of artificial foreshadowing or external judgment. It’s like a first-person vibe wrapped in limited third-person language. You feel like you’re experiencing the story right along with the characters, rather than being told it from some remote remove.

The characters, too, are so vividly alive. These are people I feel I could have coffee with, whose reactions to novel situations I might be able to guess, who I’m almost certain must take up physical space somewhere in the world. And their arcs are lovely, so satisfying and believable. All three begin locked into the tracks they’ve started on, certain they know who they are, where they stand, where their lives are headed. But as things happen — and not extraordinary or flashy things, per se, but just things in the course of living — we watch the characters struggle, then soften, relaxing at last into a broader, kinder, more forgiving interpretation of who they are and how they fit with the world around them. They recognize, settle into, and even begin to embrace their actual lives instead of resisting reality, rigid and alone. And it feels natural, inevitable even, rather than forced.

Kingsolver’s writing is, as always, both unassuming and lovely. Her style isn’t overly flowery, and yet she manages to capture the essence of things, the truth and the beauty, and to express those things in a way that’s accessible to others through language. It’s almost sneakily poetic. You don’t notice her weaving the textures of her landscape, her characters, her themes — and yet you look up and see them wrapped around you.

I also appreciated that the novel didn’t end with some big, happy conclusion. Story threads drifted together here and there, but there was no big reveal at the end where everything suddenly becomes clear. You feel good at the end, confident that people will be ok, but Kingsolver doesn’t go out of her way to tie everything up with a bow. Life continues, messy and unpredictable and beautiful.

I’m trying to think of some complaint with which to temper this review, but honestly, I have none. I think Kingsolver is just one of those authors whose writing style fits with my reading preferences on most, if not all, of the key points. Of course, I’ll keep testing that theory (The Lacuna is waiting patiently on my shelf), but so far, so good!

The Verdict: Excellent

Bet you didn’t see that one coming, eh?

Your Turn!

Have you encountered an author whose every book you seem to love, like they’re writing just for you? What do you think it is about their work that draws you in?

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  • http://www.lindsayedmunds.com Lindsay Edmunds

    It is funny how some authors just chime with you. I know that feeling. There are probably flaws in the books but you don’t see them and wouldn’t care if you did. I’ve never been 100% with any author, but some I like are Evan S. Connell, Shirley Jackson, Russell Hoban, and Robertson Davies.

    • http://erinreads.com/ Erin K

      Exactly! I almost feel like I have to deliver my reviews with a disclaimer, because it’s possible (probable, even) that I’m just in some kind of reading-induced delirium, heh.

      I’m a fan of Robertson Davies, too. In fact, he gets listed as one of my top 10 favorites in next Tuesday’s post. The others I haven’t read (well, except for the Frances books, which were my FAVORITES when I was little — does he write for adults??). I wonder if I’d like them too, since we have Davies as overlap…

      • http://www.lindsayedmunds.com Lindsay Edmunds

        Russell Hoban switched to adult novels when he moved to England in 1975 and wrote about 20 novels before he died in 2011. My gateway novel for Hoban was TURTLE DIARY, one of his early ones. I recommend beginning there.

  • JoAnn @ Lakeside Musing

    Prodigal Summer is my favorite Kingsolver! Flight Behavior is up there, too.

    • http://erinreads.com/ Erin K

      It was so so good!! I need to start watching for her books at library sales. I always see them but for some reason haven’t picked them up. The only other one I have on my shelf at the moment is Lacuna.

  • http://imlostinbooks.blogspot.com/ Becca

    Kingsolver wrote one of my very fave books, The Poisonwood Bible. I also have read Animal, Vegetable, Mineral. But these are the only 2. I have Prodigal Summer but I haven’t read it yet. You’re making me want to go downstairs and dig it out of my boxes of books! I can’t believe that I haven’t read it, really.

  • http://Www.spiritblog.net Heather

    Prodigal Summer is my favorite of hers too.

  • Katie

    I’m almost finished the book and am taking my time because I don’t want it to end…just like our own summer.