Sunday, January 23, 2011

The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver

I like this cover even though this is not the version I read. 
Why two such different covers?
I worship at the feet of Ms. Kingsolver's immense writing skills.  I've been a fan since I happened upon The Bean Trees way back in college.  Her books have an earthiness to them and thus highly appealing to me.  I've read and enjoyed  most everything she's written.  The Lacuna scared me at first because of its size...507 pages and also I'd heard many negative reports from friends both in person and in the blogging world.  Many readers looked forward to The Lacuna's publication date, reserved new copies at the library or ordered them and then abandoned the book half way through.  I was crushed but knew eventually I would pick it up myself.  Luckily a dear friend from my Good Spirits Book Club finished it, praised it and handed it to me to read.  While I can understand why some gave up...I loved it and was once again impressed with Kingsolver's amazing talent.

GoodReads Synopsis:

     In her most accomplished novel, Barbara Kingsolver takes us on an epic journey from the Mexico City of artists Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo to the America of Pearl Harbor, FDR, and J. Edgar Hoover. The Lacuna is a poignant story of a man pulled between two nations as they invent their modern identities.

     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.
     With deeply compelling characters, a vivid sense of place, and a clear grasp of how history and public opinion can shape a life, Barbara Kingsolver has created an unforgettable portrait of the artist—and of art itself. The Lacuna is a rich and daring work of literature, establishing its author as one of the most provocative and important of her time.

My thoughts:

I was amazed by the amount of research it must have taken for Kingsolver to create this truly multi-layered work.  Harrison Shepherd drew me into his story, told mostly through journal entries and letters.  His mother, both despicable and human, raises Harrison without any sense of home, always striving for a new and better boyfriend/husband/meal ticket/companion.  She never finds fullfillment in her own life but somehow through her twisted, topsy-turvy life Harrison is satisfied with the simple side of his life.

He  finds solace in writing, keeping a journal of sorts, and allowing life to lead him to work.   I so enjoyed meeting Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo and Leon Trotsky within the first half of  Harrison's Mexico story.  I had an inkling of Trotsky's relationship to Kahlo and Rivera but this book made me want to know more.  I want to go back and watch the 2002 movie, Frida starring Salma Hayek and I'm interested in  Trotsky's ideas. I wonder if there is other historical fiction that includes Leon Trotsky's early life in Russia.

The second half of the book takes place in Asheville where Violet Brown picks up Harrison's thread as she works as his Girl Friday.  Her character brings a new form of friendship to Harrison's life as she takes care of him like a mother or a sister would, appreciating all of Harrison's quirkiness.    I loved the depth of this book and enjoyed discussing varying elements with my husband.  If you haven't given this book a try please has,  for me, put Kingsolver's work on another literary level. 

Check out Barbara Kingsolver's website
Find it at an IndieBound bookstore near you...The Lacuna

Other bits about The Lacuna:

The Blue Bookcase
Molly's Cafe Books
and Amy at Totally Uninspired