Kingsolver’s Prodigal Summer creates interest for every type of reader

Tanya Marsh

Tanya Marsh

I recently picked up Barbara Kingsolver’s newest novel, Prodigal Summer, and quickly devoured it.

After loving Kingsolver’s Poisonwood Bible, I had to try another one of her works. In Prodigal Summer, I found more compelling characters and beautiful language that increased my admiration for her writing.

The novel features three separate stories: a young entomologist, newly widowed; an old farmer; and a middle-aged nonconformist. Rather than drawing these three together and showing us their interactions, as many novels do, Kingsolver gives us a glimpse into the intersection and lets the reader ponder the rest. Each story stands solidly on its own and the intertwining angles simply add to the beauty of human friendship.

Tree-hugging themes come into play in a big way, but they don’t feel preachy. Rather, the characters present solid evidence to back up their emotional convictions, and the wonder of nature is admired. The moderate or opposing ideology of some characters also helps to balance the novel. For example, Garner, the old farmer, is nearly driven crazy by his organic orchard-owning neighbor until he takes the time to listen to her point of view. And Eddie, the nonconformist’s boyfriend, can’t see eye to eye with her on the subject of perdation of predators.

Shrouded in vegetation and crawling with insects, the cover and inside pages of the book hint at further unusual themes within. The old farmer loves chestnut trees. The nonconformist is a nut for coyotes. And the young widow could spend hours looking at bugs.

I don’t have a particular interest in any of these things, but when Kingsolver spends pages exploring the passions of each of these characters, it is captivating rather than yawn inducing. Her writing is so vibrant and metaphorical that explanations of cross-pollination of trees and coyote family groups become poetic.

Another aspect of the novel that might appeal to readers – especially in this state – is the farming. Though the story is set in the Appalachian Mountains, not the Plains, the main characters and the people they interact with are small-town farmers. They are trying to justify their vocation not for the cash dividends but for the sheer joy of struggling to keep cherries canned, roofs patched and tractors running.

As I read Prodigal Summer, I kept thinking of people I’d like to loan the book to, like my dad, a Kingsolver fan, or Kate, the bug-loving girl from my Spanish class. The one reservation I have in recommending this book to everyone I know is the saturation of sex in the novel. If you like characters that keep their clothes on, you should leave Prodigal Summer on the shelf. Otherwise, snatch it up.