No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Sunday, May 21, 2006

#48: Prodigal Summer -- Barbara Kingsolver

As an exploration of hormones, attraction and human interaction with nature, I'll take this over The Truth about Hormones any day.

It's the story of three lonely -- well, solitary -- people, each of whom reacts differently to their encounters with society. Deanna Wolfe is a ranger in a National Park, two years alone in a forest cabin high on the slopes of a mountain. Lusa Landowski, widowed at twenty-seven, finds herself the sole occupant of a sixty-acre farm, hemmed in by in-laws and determined not to farm tobacco -- not least because the bottom's falling out of the market. Garnett Widener is an old man living alone, feuding with his neighbour Nannie, who's given to organic farming ("grow[ing] apples with no chemicals at all, in defiance of the laws of nature") and arguments in favour of evolution.

Each of the characters is subtly drawn: the reader is privy to things they don't necessarily know about themselves. Lusa's love of moths -- she was an entomologist before her marriage -- has emotional resonance. Deanna celebrates the arrival of a coyote troup, mourns the death of baby chicks without understanding the empty space in her own life. Garnett lives in the land, knows every tree, has 'a strange sad thought about his own special way of seeing trees inside his mind, and how it would go dark, like a television set going off, at the moment of his death': but he doesn't know how to fend off that intimation of mortality.

There are some wonderful images in this book: rockets on the Fourth of July as 'men trying to have sex with the sky', the hormone-stream of luna moths, the 'sadness of lost things' as Deanna imagines the ghosts of extinct species in the quiet cathedral of the forest. When I first read it, I found myself swept up by the tales of strong women, women who by accident or design have ended up alone, women who get along in the world without a close romantic attachment. This isn't a romantic novel in any traditional sense, though there is love and lust aplenty, inappropriate attraction, individuals behaving like idiots because of the way they feel about somebody else.

On reflection, I think there's another layer of story, an underlying narrative about everybody needing somebody, possibly even a paean to family and motherhood. It's very much a novel about choice, though: about how minds and hearts balance, how free will lets human beings make conscious choices about things that affect them, happen to them, at a subconscious level.

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