Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The Lacuna, by Barbara Kingsolver--a review

The Lacuna, by Barbara Kingsolver, is a rich novel chronicling the life of a novelist: Harrison Shepherd, a man one might characterize as the ultimate outsider. As someone who straddles two worlds, that of his divorced Mexican mother and that of his estranged American father, he doesn’t truly feel at home in either one. Shepherd’s whole history makes him an outsider. Shepherd’s mother abruptly leaves his father and takes her son to live on an island in Mexico with her lover, and her narcissism, benign neglect, and man-chasing start her son on the path to being an internal person who observes life, and writes it down, rather than fully participating. Shepherd is truly an outcast at a Washington D.C. boarding school, where he is ignored by his father, and where he realizes he’s gay.

Later, back in Mexico, he works as a cook in the household of the painters Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. It’s a wonderful place for a would-be novelist to hone his craft, watching but not quite participating in their colorful lives. Shepherd meets, and then works as secretary to, Lev Trotsky, who comes to use the Kahlo-Riveras’ house as a sanctuary from Stalin’s assassins.

Without going into detail that will give away the story entirely, Shepherd’s experiences in Mexico both contribute to his development as a novelist, and to his development of an anxiety disorder that keeps him away from the public eye, and brings him to a small, neat, orderly existence in North Carolina. There he becomes a famous novelist and a target of the American government’s anti-communist purges in the late 1940s.

I truly enjoyed this as a historical novel, and as a novel of ideas. Kingsolver successfully uses many formats to tell her story—diary entries, memoir, the notes of the main character’s secretary-turned archivist/biographer, book reviews, newspaper articles, letters, and even congressional transcripts.

For me, there are three fascinating relationships in the book—the relationship between Shepherd and his mother, the relationship between Shepherd and the painter Frida Kahlo, and the relationship between Shepherd and his assistant, Violet Brown. Shepherd was a gay man, but he never had a really successful affair of the heart, and his most important relationships were with women. His mother taught him to be wary of human relationships, Frida Kahlo taught him to be an artist, and Violet Brown taught him the meaning of loyalty.

The time Shepherd spends in Mexico in the Kahlo-Rivera household and the Trotsky household is the most compelling and colorfully drawn segment of the novel. Kingsolver’s imagining of Kahlo’s character is captivating. She is difficult, capricious, mysterious, and narcissistic, yet she recognizes a kindred spirit in Shepherd and encourages him to become a writer.

Also fascinating is the section of the novel that has to do with Shepherd’s persecution by the U.S. government as a potential communist sympathizer. Kingsolver deftly explores the American obsession with communists, and its hypocrisies, and paints a portrait of a man who just wants to have a private life, who is driven away from the country that should be his sanctuary.

11 comments:

Ti said...

I have enjoyed Kingsolver's other works but I've been hesitant to pick this one up. I feel as if I need to be in the right mood to read it and my moods are so fleeting!

Jeane said...

I've really liked some of Kingsolver's other books too, but for some reason this one is intimidating me!

J.S. Peyton said...

I've never read any of Kingsolver's fiction (just "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle - which I loved!), and I thought I would start with this one. I've read so many mixed reviews, I'm not sure though. I think I'll wait until the paperback come out. Or, get it from the library. You didn't hate which is definitely encouraging. :)

Gentle Reader said...

Ti--I really enjoyed the book, but I know folks who either got tired of the letters/newspaper articles/documents approach, or the politics. Her writing is pretty great, though!

Jeane--I found the broad historical sweep a bit intimidating, but I got into the book pretty quickly.

J.S.--I did enjoy it, definitely found it engaging, but you can wait for paper :)

litlove said...

This sounds marvellous to me. I love books that incorporate the lives of artists and they don't come more dramatic thah Frieda Kahlo and Diego Riviera! I'm sorry to say I've yet to read Kingsolver, so this will definitely be a good book to break the ice with!

Dorothy W. said...

I'm glad you liked this one; I got a copy for my husband for Christmas, since he is a Kingsolver fan, and I probably will read it at some point too. It does sound fascinating!

Gentle Reader said...

litlove--it would be hard for me to say whether you should read this first, or The Poisonwood Bible--both are really good.

Dorothy--Isn't it great when you can give books to your husband that you might want to read yourself? I do that too!

Amy Reads Good Books said...

I love Kingsolver! Glad to see that you enjoyed her new book.

Diane said...

So happy to see that you enjoyed this book. I hope to get to it soon :) Great review.

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Viagra Online said...

Lacuna bores me to dead is the most annoying character from the whole series, I mean it.