I feel a little bad for writing this review because I read Prodigal Summer upon a friend’s recommendation. But this book irritated me so much that I have to give it the harsh critique it deserves. So if you are reading this Bill, I’m sorry.
In a novel that aspires to be more than mere entertainment, we expect the author to present us with themes and messages that make us think. The discerning reader knows the author has an agenda, but I think most of us resent when that agenda is pushed too blatantly. If you just want to tell people what you think, write a nonfiction book. If you want to show people what you think, write a novel that seamlessly incorporates your ideas into the story. Russian authors were masters at expressing complex themes throughout their writings, weaving commentary and social critique into the fabric of the story.
This brings me to Barbara Kingsolver’s annoying novel, Prodigal Summer, a book so second rate that I doubt it would have been published if Barbara Kingsolver hadn’t already been an established author. There are three stories in the book, each vaguely connected to the other two. Prepare to be underwhelmed by how the stories intertwine. If you looked at the three stories independently, they would be mediocre at best, so it isn’t a surprise that together they form a piss poor novel.
I must note that I agree with 95% of the authors ideas on nature and humans’ relationship with the environment; it is just that other authors express these ideas so much more beautifully without sounding like insufferably pretentious twats. I attended a reading by a naturalist named Robert Michael Pyle, a nature writer, leading butterfly scientist, and friend of old Barbara K; unsurprisingly he was a pretentious ass also. Birds of a feather I suppose.
Story 1: A 47 year old park ranger named Deanna guards a piece of National Forest in Applachia. We learn that she has been living in isolation there for two years after a failed marriage and an unhappy life in civilization. She is self absorbed, unlikable, and self righteous about her role as guardian of the forest (self righteousness is a major theme in this book). One day while looking for coyotes in the forest, she meets a handsome, young, homeless hunter who soon becomes her lover. The rest of her story is her having incredible sex with him while she resents him for hunting the coyotes she loves so much, all while she makes cliche observations about nature.
Story 2: Lusa is a city raised entymologist who marries a farmer out in the country, just down the hill from Deanna. We meet her as she argues with her husband, mocking his backwardness and hating him for his use of modern farming techniques. Fortunately, he dies and she inherits the farm, where she uses her superior multicultural background as a half Polish Jew, half Palestinian to make the farm prosper, outsmarting her husband’s hick family who has farmed the land for generations. Every opportunity is taken to poke fun at the ignorance of the country dwellers, including mocking their quaint accents, lack of education, and their faith. Lusa’s interactions with her niece are especially painful as she ponderously preaches about environmentalism. Of course, her handsome seventeen year old nephew falls in love with her, although they don’t do the deed.
Story 3: Garrnat (I think that’s his name) is a grouchy old man who is constantly feuding with the old lady organic farmer next door. This provides some of the few humorous moments in the book, although we are constantly treated to the old lady organic farmer’s self righteous monologues on organic agriculture the interconnectedness of all things, and the importance of respecting nature. Garrnat is constantly put in a poor light because of his traditional values, his lack of enlightenment about the big picture of nature, and his creationism beliefs.
If you are the type of environmentalist who enjoys to be smug and constantly talk down to people, read this book. If you believe that young men (or men in general) are attracted to aging feminists, read this book. If you despise people with traditional values, rural dwellers, or Christians, read this book. I understand that Barbara Kingsolver established some sort of award for “socially responsible writing.” Of course that begs the question: what is socially irresponsible writing? Any how, if Prodigal Summer is what socially responsible writing reads like, it is boring, self important, and preachy. I don’t know if I will ever read a Barbara Kingsolver book again; I have heard much about The Poisonwood Bible, about missionaries in the Congo. I’m going to hazard a guess and say it is heavy handed writing that puts Christianity in a bad light. Barbara Kingsolver is poor story teller if I can judge by this book, don’t waste your time!