“Prodigal Summer” by Barbara Kingsolver – Ambitious tour de force to set one thinking

This is my review of Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver.

Middle-aged, reclusive warden for an Appalachian Forest Service, Deanna is unable to resist the charms of the young hunter Eddie Bondo, although she suspects that his chief motive is to claim the bounty for shooting the coyotes thought to have migrated into the area, creatures it has become her obsession to keep concealed and protect. Sexual attraction has led city-bred Lusa to abandon her budding career as a research biologist to become the wife of Cole, a down-to-earth farmer in rural Zebulon County, where she feels oppressed by the suspicion and narrow-minded prejudices of his family and driven to bicker with him over their different attitudes to nature: like Deanna, she is interested in how coyotes have come to migrate two thousand miles from the Grand Canyon, whereas he is more concerned about the intrusion of meat-eating animals on the local dairy farms. Thirdly in the three interwoven story threads which we know will eventually converge, old Garnett Walker conducts a feud with Nannie Rawley “his nearest neighbour and the bane of his life” who sabotages his attempts to control the weeds on his lands with pesticides. Having lost the past family wealth from the American chestnut woods now lost to blight, he labours at the painstaking process of cross-pollinating replacement trees with stock from China, to re-establish a resistant strain. n.b. I’m interested by the Goodreads review from a male reader who felt that the men in the story are stereotyped and portrayed unfairly as less in touch with ecosystems than women, and more guilty of trying to control nature.

Trained as a biologist before becoming a writer, Barbara Kingsolver brims over with a knowledge of the natural world, much apparently based on personal observation, impressive for a city dweller, and thought-provoking – as for the idea that that pesticides may only cause bugs to multiply, by also killing indiscriminately the creatures which prey upon them. I soon found this novel an absorbing page turner, with vivid descriptions, a range of interesting, distinctive characters, by turns poignant and wrily humorous – the kind of story one tries to read more slowly in the vain attempt to take in all the bubbling brew of ideas and information, and which one feels sorry to end.

Yet at the same time, the author’s primary aim to show how the primal force to reproduce drives everything – insect, bird, beast and man – often leads to an almost farcical plethora of examples. It feels at times like reading a biology text book masquerading as a literary Mills & Boon, often too overblown, wordy, corny and contrived for my taste, as when Lusa tries to bond with her prickly ten-year-old niece, or when Deanna, unexpectedly tracked down by Eddie, launches into the analysis that he has been guided by her pheromones: “I’m fertile, that’s what got to you……I sleep outside a lot..I’m on the same schedule as the moon”. This prompts Eddie to say “So back in the old days, when they slept on the ground around the fire, wrapped up in skins….You’re saying all the women in the world came into heat at the same time?” This conversation takes place as the pair “stomp down” on puffballs “releasing a cloud of spores that rose and curled like golden brown smoke, glittering in the sunlit air between them. Sex cells, they were, a mushroom’s bliss, its attempt to fill the world with its mushroom progeny.”

The novel repays rereading, perhaps after an elapse of time. Sincere and “heart-warming”, carefully thought out to trigger reflection on man’s place in nature, it would have been a technically better novel if pruned down but perhaps it was the author’s intention to create a cornucopia of words and ideas.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ 4 Stars

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