“Prodigal Summer” is like a hike in the woods with a science teacher at your side. Make that a biology teacher. There’s a whole lot of mating and propagation going on here—from moths to goats and, oh yes, humans. I love Kingsolver’s brand. Yes, I think she’s got a brand. I think she shot up out of the mud and rock, pen in hand. I wonder if there’s an “earthier” writer going. Perhaps the most memorable scene in “Poisonwood Bible” (among many) was the ant attack. In “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle,” the chicken slaughtering sequence was violent and gripping at the same time. When Kingsolver writes something, you experience it in your whole body. “Prodigal Summer” rocks along about an inch off the ground. The book seems to be constantly looking in the cracks and folds of nature, or in the attics and closets and cupboards of houses and barns and cabins. That zooming-eye lens of hers. It can swoop in on the smallest detail and make it pop out of the landscape, never losing the larger images moving across the page.
The “Prodigal Summer” plot and the characters seem to come right out of the stone and dirt. There are five main characters here – Deanna, Eddie, Lusa, Garnett and Nannie. The sixth is the rich setting. Or maybe the setting is number one.
With “Prodigal Summer,” in some cases, I think Kingsolver almost went into too much detail. The little bits and pieces of information being dropped by dialogue almost cluttered the plot and the characters. It’s a fine line. And that’s what I wonder: how do you know when it’s enough?
In “Prodigal Summer,” the constant detail about mammals and bugs and reptiles and their habitats, rituals, needs and mating was, well, just a bit endless. All the major characters seem to have too much knowledge—detailed knowledge. The information about every bird and goat and snake, layered in thick strands in a fairly rich and interesting plot, grew tiresome.
Here’s an example. Deep into the book, Lusa is explaining about some vines. “This one’s nice, though; it’s supposed to grow here. It gets covered with white flowers at the end of summer, and then it makes millions of seedpods that look like little silver starbursts. It’s called virgin’s bower.” I think you could extract key detail from throughout “Prodigal Summer” and extract another book, “Barbara Kingsolver’s Fairly Random Guide To the Flora and Fauna Of Appalachia.”
I don’t mean to be disrespectful of Kingsolver, I’m just trying to give a flavor for the book. It is stunning how she created three distinct sets of characters and set the stories into motion. Loner Deanna might be most compelling and interesting, but she seemed too feisty and difficult for somebody who has been communing gently with nature. I enjoyed the crotchety relationship between Garnett & Nannie more. Their scenes were funny, touching and bitingly real—two neighbors with sharply contrasting views of the world and how it’s put together. Similarly, how Kingsolver peels back the friction between Cole and Lusa, and then shows Lusa’s struggles to overcome an entrenched family (some of the members of Cole’s extended family are extremely well drawn) is vivid and memorable.
“Prodigal Summer” is not subtle. You are in a whirlwind of intriguing characters, absorbing some terrific conversations, and amazed at the ability of a good writer to make characters leap from the page, fully realized. I just wish I could have removed the parts that made it feel like biology class.