Tuesday, March 2, 2010

The Lacuna, by Barbara Kingsolver

Barbara Kingsolver is one of my all-time favorite authors. She writes big books, books that reach out covering dense and complicated subjects. Her books often bring to mind the phrase "The Personal is the Political," as the sweep of her big stories tells a tale through the eyes of finely honed, memorable characters. Most of my reader-friends hold out The Poisonwood Bible as Kingsolver's best-pick, though my special love is The Prodigal Summer. I finished both those novels with a little shiver. They so captivated me I remember blinking and trying to reorient myself in the present. So it pains me so to say this, but The Lacuna, just didn't, as one of my good friends likes to say, work for me. At all.

The protagonist, Harrison Shepherd, tells the story of his life through journal entries that are read by his long-time secretary, Violet Brown. Occasionally Violet steps in to provide details that are missing from the diaries. The theme of a lacuna, its dual definition as both a gap in an academic work and as a water-filled cave is threaded throughout the book. Harrison's early years in Mexico tell of his involvement with the big movers and shakers of that time: Frieda Kahlo, Diego Rivera and Lev Trotsky. This part of the story -- though I was glad to learn about it and to fill in some of the lacunas in my own education -- seemed kind of "Forest Gumpy" to me, and not in the fresh, surprising way of that movie, but in a contrived, not so believable way. As Shepherd moves to the U.S., we see him become a best-selling writer who gets caught up in the anti-communist hysteria of the time.

There were a few breathtaking passages throughout the book, especially in the beginning where Kingsolver describes Harrison as a boy in the lush, colorful Mexican countryside. But it was only later, in the descriptions of how Harrison as an adult battles with panic, and of his lonely life as a closet homosexual that I felt I knew anything at all about his inner life. Aside from these bits of compelling insight into his character, I felt a disconnect from him throughout.

The pacing of this book didn't help with my sense of remove. It was way too long, and at each of the turning points within the plot, I never knew enough of how what had happened affected Harrison.

I'm trying to finish The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks before Monday, when the author, Rebecca Skloot, will be in town to speak (Carmel Library, 7pm), but for tomorrow's review: Bad Mother, by Ayelet Waldman.

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