Beliefnet
Prodigal Summer
By Barbara Kingsolver
HarperCollins, 444 pp. I know the woman who reads Barbara Kingsolver. I see her time and again: shopping at Fresh Fields, Bread and Circus, or some other quality grocery that sells many kinds of lettuce; piling her two children into the Volvo wagon; wearing Indian jewelry. She believes in chiropractics. Her daughter is named Hannah. She is a little too high-end for Oprah's book club but not so high-end as to eschew all book clubs. I know that this woman is the typical Kingsolver buff because I see her cradling the new book, cooing about how thrilled she is as she stands at the counter of the independent bookseller. When she says things like, "I just devour fiction"--and say them she does--it's Kingsolver she has in mind. I am mocking this woman (and her male counterpart) because she wants literature to be, in her awful word, satisfying. Like a good meal. That is what Barbara Kingsolver provides, and a steady diet of it ensures that the bright, college-educated reader, the reader who is urbane enough to appreciate Kingsolver's often skillful satire and literate enough to follow the syntax and vocabulary, will never deploy that intelligence to apprehend art. The leap from Kingsolver to J.M. Coetzee, Philip Roth, or Ron Carlson is giant, not because these latter writers demand sharper minds but because they demand more adventuresome souls. What is so morally anesthetizing about Kingsolver's writing, both her fiction and her essays? Her latest novel, "Prodigal Summer," is the perfect prooftext to answer that question. It comprises three plot strands, not quite woven together, but each fluttering near the others; by the end of the book, we see how the characters from each little world will hop into neighboring worlds, by relation or friendship or happenstance.
In one of these strands, Lusa Landowski, a city girl from Lexington, Kentucky, is widowed and left to fend for herself on her late husband's family farm, fighting blight, pests, and the wicked sisters-in-law who have always resented her. Nearby, elderly Nannie tends her organic apples, attends the Unitarian church in a nearby college town, and feuds bitterly with grouchy old Garnett, a widower whose pesticides are always blowing onto her property. Up in the hills, forest-ranger Deanna, fleeing a painful divorce by isolating herself in the wilderness, embarks on a torrid affair with Eddie, a macho hiker half her age who stumbles into her one day. The choice not to tie these strands together is artful and intentional, because it forces the reader to ask what they have in common. And the answer is that they share both an attitude and a theme. The attitude: optimism. The theme: fecundity, fertility, reproduction. The pacifist clergyman William Sloane Coffin draws a distinction between hope and optimism. Hope, he says, is what we need to persevere, a disposition that one maintains despite the terrible facts of our condition. Optimism, on the other hand, is a naïve denial of those facts. Kingsolver is an optimist. Her characters walk a steady path toward the solution of all their problems, and by the middle of the book it is clear that reconciliation, human connection, and sympathy will trump all.
It's not that literature shouldn't have happy endings, only that in realist fiction the happy ending must seem real: reflect the actual joy of life, which is complicated and fleeting--and all the greater for its ephemerality--rather than a fairy tale perfection. Kingsolver is doubly damned because she is so adept at shaping characters. She gives us men, women, and children real enough to wrestle or punch or kiss and then mires them in circumstances fake enough to roll the eyes of even the least cynical readers.

Given Kingsolver's formidable skill at pacing a narrative, "Prodigal Summer" would still be a rewarding read but for the relentless return to her theme, presaged by the title. Prodigality, in its sense of abundant fruitfulness, is everywhere. Trees give up fruit. Men are in heat. The goats mate happily. Bees produce honey enough to flood a church (literally). Women's cycles wax with the moon. "Her body felt full and heavy and slow and human and absent, somehow," Kingsolver writes of Deanna, "just a weight to be carried forward without its enthusiastic cycles of fertility and rest, the crests and valleys she had never realized she had counted on so much. Deadweight, was that what she was now? An obsolete female biding its time until death?"

Mating coyotes are analogized to mating humans, which are analogized in turn to procreative bees. Why is this so bothersome after a while? Not, I think, because it is obvious, though it is that. Ralph Ellison can be obvious; George Orwell too. But Ellison and Orwell used obvious, sometime heavy-handed prose in the service of unobvious, iconoclastic truths. Re-read "Invisible Man," "Animal Farm," or "The Road to Wigan Pier" and remember how fresh their truths were: that black people felt invisible, that the Soviet experiment should be judged not by GNP but by freedom, that not all was right in jolly England. Intellectuals did not necessarily understand these things.

Today, we understand that pesticides are bad and that menopause can be a difficult time. We get that Appalachia has an indigenous culture, close to the land, worthy of respect. "Prodigal Summer," with its considerable merits--finely wrought scenes, true characters, narrative vim--is never, ever surprising. It tells us nothing that a thousand public-radio segments, Tikkun articles, and "Whole Earth Catalogs" have not. It is an updated "Our Bodies, Ourselves," read by women and men who already own "Our Bodies, Ourselves." So it confirms their beliefs, validates their urges, and puts them, securely, to bed at night.

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