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:
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 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?
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?