Last summer, after I read Barbara Kingsolver’s life-changing, consciousness-raising, piece of poetic genius, The Poisonwood Bible, I vowed to read everything else this author had scratched her name on. So far that’s only been The Bean Trees and her latest, Prodigal Summer [Harper Perennial], now in paperback. (Sure, I should have read them all by now, but I got distracted with a few other authors and the responsibilities of life)
Prodigal Summer is a funny book in the way that while you’re sort of hating its preachiness, its preciousness, it’s predictability and its over-the-top New Age-comes-to-Appalachia feel, its characters do get wrapped around you and the reader cares enough to get to the end and see what happens. Prodigal Summer is full of trivia about insects and mating habits and mysteries of pollination which serve as neat –maybe too neat—metaphors of human drives, our animal place and interconnectedness in the world.
Prodigal Summer is also a funny book in the ha-ha sense, with conversation that had me laughing out loud, despite the fact I sometimes felt I was reading a Harlequin romance or Bridges of Madison County… (Juicy, graphic love scenes in literary fiction? Ick. Call me a prude but it feels intrusive.) But it’s those comic moments, plus Kingsolver’s lyrical brilliance, that keep you turning the pages even when you're privy to the moon-influenced thoughts of young Lusa contemplating her ovaries, or premenopausal Deanna, the wild woman of the mountain (the word "looney" does come from "lunar", you know). Trapped inside the heads of these two flakes, I wanted to bust out in a big way.
The book centers on several couples in a Kentucky farmland valley of Zebulon County. There's Deanna who was raised in the valley and moved up to the mountain after a rocky marriage to live in isolation as a forest ranger, later becoming seduced by a young hunter who is everything she despises logically and everything she wants physically. And then we have Lusa, the city entomologist-cum-farmer’s widow who takes to raising kids of both the human and goat kind (did I mention she's a mix of Arab and Yiddish descent? Oy vey!). Cranky old Garnett, a stuck-in-the-mud widower farmer in his late 70s becomes enchanted with Nannie Rawley, the free-spirited, organic-growing, liberated senior-babe next door, although he denies it to the end. Each of the female protagonists seems to contain traits of the typical Kingsolver hero-woman: strong, atypical, and non-traditional, yet cast in bodies of different ages and circumstance.
I’ll never say that Prodigal Summer changed my life the way that The Poisonwood Bible did (a must-read for every thinking person), but it was –for the most part-- a pleasant diversion. And, like Poisonwood, The Bean Trees, and all Kingsolver’s books (or so I’m told), she fulfills her mission of educating her readers to her causes. Thanks to Kingsolver, I can tell you all the ecological fundamentals about predators and bugs and pollination, and I can even draw some neat little parallels to human behavior. I didn’t want to know this, mind you. She dragged me into the story kicking and screaming and trying not to puke at all this nature gushing and cosmic romance. Prodigal Summer is like a literary copulation with the world—we’re talking ecological erotica here. But, in all that compost and manure were some good nuggets of wisdom, and, like any good Earth Science class in junior high, I feel somewhat smarter for having finished it.