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.