Tuesday, December 20, 2011

REVIEW: The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver

Synopsis: (from Goodreads): Born in the United States, reared in a series of provisional households in Mexico—from a coastal island jungle to 1930s Mexico City—Harrison Shepherd finds precarious shelter but no sense of home on his thrilling odyssey. Life is whatever he learns from housekeepers who put him to work in the kitchen, errands he runs in the streets, and one fateful day, by mixing plaster for famed Mexican muralist Diego Rivera. He discovers a passion for Aztec history and meets the exotic, imperious artist Frida Kahlo, who will become his lifelong friend. When he goes to work for Lev Trotsky, an exiled political leader fighting for his life, Shepherd inadvertently casts his lot with art and revolution, newspaper headlines and howling gossip, and a risk of terrible violence. 

Meanwhile, to the north, the United States will soon be caught up in the internationalist goodwill of World War II. There in the land of his birth, Shepherd believes he might remake himself in America's hopeful image and claim a voice of his own. He finds support from an unlikely kindred soul, his stenographer, Mrs. Brown, who will be far more valuable to her employer than he could ever know. Through darkening years, political winds continue to toss him between north and south in a plot that turns many times on the unspeakable breach—the lacuna—between truth and public presumption. 

My thoughts:  Ever encounter a book where the author is a big name bestseller and you end up feeling the glowing reviews given for the book were more because of author status than because the content was great?  That is how I felt after reading raves on The Lacuna from all the major publications.  After reading the book it really did feel like their thought process before writing the reviews went something like:

“Barbara Kingsolver wrote the Poisonwood Bible which is all kinds of awesome.  This book?  Not so awesome BUT since I don’t feel like being tarred, feathered, and strung up by my toes for saying that because the general mindset is Barbara Kingsolver=awesome, well in MY review this book will be the bees knees and let some other schmuck deal with the torch and pitchfork crowd for saying otherwise.”

Now let me follow that up with this: Barbara Kingsolver is a VERY good writer and this book is NOT a bad book. It does however, have some issues that make it a challenging read. I really enjoy her style and I fondly remember blazing through The Poisonwood Bible in 2003 as I lay in my cot in the deserts of Kuwait while our unit waited for orders to roll into Iraq.  In fact, reading that book is about the only fond remembrance from that whole horrible year but that is another story…

We follow Harrison Shepard as he matures from a boy uprooted from the US and moved to Mexico at the whims of his mother (who supports them by latching onto any rich man she can find) to manhood where he works as a secretary for the exiled Communist revolutionary Leon Trotsky. We also enter the world of artists Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, supporters of Trotsky and employers of Harrison.   The author writes a detailed account of Mexico in the 1930s-the art, the politics, the revolutionary spirit taking over the country- and throws in a bit of a history lesson as well.  We learn all this through Harrison’s journal entries-journals he keeps meticulously through most of his life. It is also through these journals and letters that we are drawn into his strange but enduring friendship with Frida. When his time with Trotsky comes to an abrupt conclusion, Harrison moves back the US to start life anew-landing in Asheville, NC and finally realizing his dream of becoming a writer.  It is here he meets Ms. Brown who is the narrator guiding us through a majority of the story.  It seems his troubles are not over though as anti-communist fervor sweeps the nation and Harrison’s past with Trotsky comes back to haunt him.

Now, about those issues I mentioned earlier.  This book is divided into two sections: Harrison’s life in Mexico and his life once he returned to the US.  Although it was packed with detail the pacing was really slow in the first part.  I was 150 pages into this 500+ page book and still wondering what exactly the plot was and when the story would pick up.  At the half way point I was still slogging through and wondering the same things. I learned quite a bit while reading this part but I was bored with it at times and found it a real struggle to continue reading.  I probably would have thrown in the towel at some point in the first section if I had not been reading this to complete a challenge.  Surprisingly, many others who have read this preferred the first section to the second.  The second section which covers Harrison’s life in the States and introduces us to Ms. Brown was much more enjoyable to me.  I think this part is where we really get to see who he is and most of this section is written in epistolary format which I really like.  Here is where I finally felt a connection to the main character and I really loved Ms. Brown. I flew through the second part.  She does a really good job of tying everything together in this part (finally my “Where is the plot and what the heck is going on?” questions were answered).  Once everything tied together towards the end I was left feeling better about the book as a whole.  Overall I liked the book but I’m not sure struggling through 300 pages to get to the 200 I enjoyed was really worth the effort.  Still, even though this one was hard for me I think Kingsolver is a remarkable writer and it’s likely I’ll read her again in the future.  If you’re looking to try her for the first time I would recommend starting with one of her others first though.

 This book is from my own personal library.

1 comment:

  1. I love Barbara Kingsolver -- I agree with you about the pacing but still found I enjoyed all parts of the book, even the slower parts. The U.S. segment of the book really brought everything together for me. My favorite Kingsolver novels are her earliest ones.