Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Book Review: "Prodigal Summer"

After hearing Barbara Kingsolver speak in Cambridge last week about her new book, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle (to be read and reviewed in its own right soon) I decided I'd like to try one of her novels, so on a friend's recommendation I picked up a copy of Prodigal Summer at the shop. I found it one of those books where I was torn between wanting to read slowly, rationing chapters to prolong the experience, and wanting to just settle in with it for a few sustained hours and read the whole thing at once. On a lazy Memorial Day weekend, you can probably guess which won out.

Prodigal Summer tells the stories of three very different people whose lives end up intricately connected by the time the book - but not their stories - comes to a close. Kingsolver's style is simple and easy to understand, but at the same time she's expertly captured the essences of rural life and the important connections between and among people and their environment. She writes of the natural world - of birdsong and ginseng, chestnut blight and blacksnakes - with the ease and detail of someone who's experienced it. I could practically hear the wood thrushes and magnolia warblers, and was delighted to find that this book dredged up a few memories from my own childhood, of wandering on my grandpa's hillsides looking for ginseng and admiring our few remaining chestnut trees.

Beyond the beautiful descriptive prose and emotion-rich narratives, Kingsolver's book also contains a strong and recurring environmental message. I noticed several precursors of the "locavore" (eat local) philosophy she discusses more fully in the new book, and many of the characters in Prodigal Summer grapple with questions of pesticide and resource use, food chains and the like. If these themes seem to be a bit heavy-handed at times, it's because they haven't sunk in for us yet, and we need every reminder we can get. As Kingsolver writes, in a line I've already memorized, "Every choice is a world made new for the chosen."

This is an important book, both for its message(s) and for its simple, elegant prose. I'm glad I read it.