Thursday, June 10, 2010

book review: The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver

The Lacuna: A Novel
The backstory: I wanted to read The Lacuna when it first came out. I loved the subject matter, as I have long been an admirer of Diego Rivera and Frido Kahlo. Although I have never read Barbara Kingsolver, which always surprises people, as she is my kind of writer (and at one point owned all of her books, which was, sadly, a quick way to ensure they were never my top reading priority.) When The Lacuna made the shortlist for the 2010 Orange Prize, I finally found the impetus to read this behemoth of a novel, which won the 2010 Orange Prize yesterday.

The basics: The Lacuna is the story of Harrison Sheperd, a fictional character whose life crosses paths with notable figures and appears in historic places throughout his life in Mexico and the United States. The story is told through letters, diaries and newspaper articles. There are notes from Sheperd's archivist sprinkled throughout to guide the reader and provide clues as to why this portion of the story was in the form.

My thoughts: I wanted to love this book. I love the idea of this book. I was inspired and intrigued by the author's opening  notes on sources. All articles from The New York Times in the novel were real, but all other newspaper articles were invented. It's a wonderful tool to let even your readers not familiar with the events help separate the real from the imagined. I studied art history in college, and I learned a lot about Rivera and Kahlo. I've always been fascinated by eccentric liberal artists, so I was well-versed in their association with the Communist party. I spent a semester in high school studying HUAC and McCarthyism, and it seemed obvious to me this novel was leading to the second Red Scare. It was intentionally self-reverential, as the reader knew our hero must do something important with his life if we're reading his childhood diaries, but Kingsolver sometimes beats that point home with sly humor:

“A drastic home life, sir. Something like a novel.” “Well, then. One can only hope you are writing it all down.” “No, sir, only some of it. On the interesting days. On most of the days it’s along the lines of a bad novel with no character learning any moral.”
But fiction is nonsense, the war is real.
The story’s droll assertion: heroes may be less than heroic, while the common man saves the day.
The novel’s tender theme is a longing for home. 
This book has it all: blood-curdling treachery, and even heart interest. The female pulse will race for handsome Indian prince Cuautla. With the speed of a locomotive the story hurtles to its epic conclusion. 
Harrison Shepherd is a novelist and a seemingly ordinary man in the midst of twentieth century icons.

Overall, the pace of this novel was off for me. I knew the seemingly boring details were important and leading to something, but it was so slow. I wonder if my familiarity with the subjects of this book and my own leftist political leanings left me unsurprised and rather uninspired. There was no great revelation for me in this novel, but there were certainly moments of brilliance:
“I see. And are you trustworthy?” “It’s a hard question to answer, sir. Saying ‘yes’ could prove either case.” He seemed to like that answer, smiling a little.
But others, like the Times, speak the truth on all inconsequential occasions, so they can deceive the public with the requisite authority when it becomes necessary.”
“I don’t mean to offend the journalists; they aren’t any different from other people. They’re merely the megaphones of the other people.”
But the task has no freedom in it. A record meant for another’s eyes is not recording, but spying. 
 People love to read about sins and errors, but not their own.
There were a lot of passages and moments I enjoyed in this novel, but there were many, many more I found superfluous and un-engaging.

The verdict: I would have rather read about Kingsolver's research process. The idea of this novel is award-worthy, but this novel mostly fell flat and made fascinating subjects quite dull.

Orange thoughts: It's no secret I was pulling for The White Woman on the Green Bicycle or Black Water Rising to win. They're better novels than The Lacuna, and the Prize would mean so much more to relatively unknown writers. Daisy Goodwin, chair of the Orange Prize Committee, said they chose The Lacuna because "it is a book of a breathtaking scale and shattering moments of poignancy." My bias leads me to think her statement better reflects both Black Water Rising and The White Woman on the Green Bicycle, but I do agree there are shattering moments of poignancy, as there were in all of the shortlist books. Here are a few of my favorite poignant moments from The Lacuna:
But the task has no freedom in it. A record meant for another’s eyes is not recording, but spying.
Unthinkable. All of this is unthinkable, however much Lev and Natalya did think of it, anticipating death with each day’s dawn. To think is not always to see. 
They view the future as a house they can build with hammers and planks, rather than a ripening fruit that might go rotten due to unexpected natural forces. 
I'm curious if this tale resonated more with the Orange judges because they're not Americans. As The Lacuna itself mentions, "people love to read about sins and errors, but not their own."

Rating: 3.5 stars (out of 5)
Length: 528 pages
Publication date: November 1, 2009; the paperback will be out August 24, 2010
Source: I bought it for my Kindle.

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  1. It is quite good to know that you made it to the end of this book, but still weren't that impressed. I did like the idea of using real newspaper clippings, but as you say so much of the book was dull. I hope her next is more like The Poisonwood Bible.

  2. All I've heard about this book is either love or hate. Thanks for the measured approach!

  3. When one well-written work is up against another well-written work, I can't help but want the one by the lesser-known author to win the prize too; but, having said that, I do think the Kingsolver novel was well-done and I love the ideas she explores at the root of it.

    I didn't have the same emotional connection to it that I felt I had with her other novels (e.g. The Poisonwood Bible, which I think is similar structurally), but I still admire the skill with which she wrote it.

  4. Just stopping by to say it was great to meet you in NYC!

  5. I totally agree with you! I read this book back in Jan and rated it a C. I liked the idea of all the different 'media' that she used to create the story but I found that what I missed was her witty characters which is what you don't get from this format. Bit of a letdown. Great review though.

  6. Your opinion seems to fall in line with a lot of other reviews I've read. I haven't read any of Kingsolver's stuff except Animal, Vegetable, Miracle (loved), but so far I've been uninspired to take on her fiction. I don't think I'll be starting with this one.

  7. The more reviews I read for this book, the more reluctant I am to read it. I have little hope that I would enjoy it.

  8. Thank god I'm not alone! I felt exactly the same way...I so wanted to love it, especially because of the fascinating historical characters that popped up. But yeah...boring.

  9. I think its very good that even though you didnt like it much you still finished it. I find that very hard to do when its tough going I tend to cave in and give up.

  10. I was surprised when this won the Orange Prize because most of the reviews I've read have been lukewarm like yours

  11. I give you credit for even finishing this one! Like you I am huge Frida Kahlo fan and was really keen to read this one but it fell completely flat for me and I couldn't even finish it!

  12. I recently was in Detroit and saw the amazing Diego Rivera murals at the Art Institute,and I've been told that I ought to read this book. I think Rivera is one of the famous people you alluded to that is mentioned? I've never read Kingsolver (tried Bean Trees once, didn't get far) and I'm not sure she's my cup of tea, but that does intrigue me a little more.

  13. Carin, yes, that is the same Diego Rivera. Perhaps you would like it more if their story were new to you!

  14. I've yet to read this one but do have both the ARC and audio. Hope I like it a bit more than you...I'm curious, but my experience has been that not ALL prize winners are good read for me :)

  15. I can't say how surprised I am to see so many negative comments, and people struggling to finish The Lacuna. This is my book of the year, and had me riveted all the way through.


Thank you for taking the time to comment. Happy reading!