Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver
I read Kingsolver’s epic, The Poisonwood Bible, around the time it first came out (summer of 2000, I think). I recall that it was a good read, but I certainly didn’t have that “best. book. ever!” response that so many people seemed to have at the time. Then there was the time that someone told me a writing prompt response I wrote sounded like Prodigal Summer (having now read PS, I don’t see the connection). That was years ago too. I guess I wasn’t enthralled enough with TPB to immediately seek out PS upon hearing this comment, but I did remember it when I saw the book on the shelf at The Bookshop last summer. And then it sat on my shelf for a year…
But when I finally picked it up, I read it in a couple days; it was a quick read. I think I liked it better than TPB. I say I think because TPB is a bit vague for me, plotwise, but going on gut reaction. PS immediately hooked me in a way that TPB didn’t. I read it in big gulps. And it was funny, reading PS right after writing this:
(The fact that I read the TNITL for fun should in itself have been a strong indication that I should have majored in English, but I was too busy cutting off my nose to spite my face at the time to realize this.)
because PS is the type of book that makes me happy that I majored in biology. You know, because a degree in something other than writing/English gives me something to write about. Also, it makes for quirky cocktail conversation. Like so:
Acquaintance: What’s your undergrad in?
Or, alternatively: Me too! (Yes, apparently I am not alone in my weirdness.)
But I digress. PS starts out as three separate stories, but as the book progresses, we find out that all three are more or less connected. In Predators, we meet Deanna, who has parlayed her master’s degree into a job for the Forest Service (essentially discouraging hunters from poaching wildlife). In Moth Love, we have Lusa, who gave up her postdoctoral grant to marry tobacco farmer Cole and is struggling to adjust to life as an outsider in a small community. And finally, in Old Chestnuts, we have retired schoolteacher Garnett and his neighbor/nemesis Nannie. Deanna’s thing is coyotes, Lusa loves moths, Garnett’s trying to revive the American chestnut, and Nannie grows organic apples.
The book is all about sex, not in the porn sense, but in the cycle-of-life sense. The story functions as a polemic for Kingsolver. Characters frequently launch into long “as you know, Bob” monologues on the evils of hunting or pesticides or tobacco farming. If you’re a left-coasty granola (*cough*), this is pretty standard stuff, but where the story’s set (Appalachia), her views are probably less de rigueur.
I liked that the secondary characters always remained a bit of mystery (as people do) and that everything wasn’t tied up neatly in a bow at the end (life goes on…). Initially I wasn’t sure about the headhopping between chapters—just when you get hooked on Deanna’s story, it leaps to Lusa, etc. and at first I found myself reading fast so I could get back to the first storyline (and then the second & so on) because at first it’s like three separate stories. But as the three stories became entwined, the headhopping starts to make sense—they’re three different PoVs within the same setting. So in the end, I thought the strategy worked.