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.
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?"
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.