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Prodigal Summer – Barbara Kingsolver

 
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Posted October 16, 2016 by

Reviewed by: Stephen A. Haines   Date: 12 May 2002

Kingsolver’s career as a science writer is successfully merged with her matchless descriptive skills in this novel. Set in the tobacco growing region of Appalachia, she uses the four women and a retired geneticist to discuss evolution, predator-prey relationships and modern farming practices to foster realistic thinking about environmental issues. These run from “pest elimination” to herbicide use. She deftly relates the different sex ploys of moths, coyotes and humans. The result leaves the human patterns more inexplicable than ever. The middle-aged Deanna encounters a man in the bush, and we never quite discern which of the pair is the seducer. Lexington Lusa loses a husband, but gains an adolescent. And a septuagenarian, to his everlasting shame, gets an erection over his neighbour, who is nearly as ancient as he.

It’s unclear what the target market is for this book. Clearly, it isn’t her former neighbours in Appalachia. Kingsolver’s patronizing attitude toward the farm country patois is almost embarrassing. “Political correctness” hasn’t reached down to regional speech patterns yet, apparently. Those tobacco farmers are unlikely to buy into her attempt to explain evolution and it’s unlikely she’s going to hamper coyote hunting there or anywhere else. The urban readers who have already learned about Darwin will buy this book out of loyalty. Will they learn anything new? Perhaps, but if they wander the countryside trying to sell Kingsolver’s ideas as she does, their reception is likely to be a warm one.

Will her buyers pick up this book for its plot? Hopefully not, for their disappointment will be severe. As each character is introduced within their environment, the resulting events are glaringly predictable. Deanna’s sexual perplexity conflicts with her newly acquired environmental outlook. What prompted her to write a thesis on coyotes remains an enigma. Lusa, a transplanted farm wife from the city, MUST somehow end up with the farm, making a go of it in novel fashion. It seems to be a genetic trait, but again, the causes remain vague. The crusty old man, Garnett Walker III, is the most predictable of all, and the cruelest. Kingsolver gives us a shambling clown, self-contained, irascible due to his infirmities and in constant contention with the world. Kingsolver may find cataracts, memory loss and dizzy spells humorous, but it will be interesting to see her outlook if these afflictions strike her at that age.

Her persistence in portraying all men as inadequate in one way or another has grown more than a little shopworn. Opening one of her books leads you inevitably into a mob of resourceful, enterprising women, all successful somehow even in the face of adversity. That adversity is always men – even when the failing is simply dying at “the wrong time.” Walker is derived from the father in Poisonwood Bible, an Christianised geriatric who finds it difficult, strangely enough, to shed nearly eight decades of his upbringing. His “redemption” makes compelling narrative, but the genders could have been reversed without losing the impact. A young man is told to shove off, but, of course, only does so after his partner becomes pregnant.

Kingsolver’s descriptive powers will entice her legions of fans to this book. The city element among them will nod sympathetically. Rural readers, even outside Appalachia, may be confronted with some unpalatable truths, but it’s unlikely their views will be modified by this novel. It’s a good beach read for those who want to relax and escape, but there’s nothing serious to reflect on here. Such concepts are better sought elsewhere.

Prodigal Summer: A Novel
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