Five main characters, living separate lives, constitute the core structure of this work. The story begins in earnest, focussing on an isollated forest ranger. She is living alone, deep in the Appalachia woods, monitoring biology and infrastructure, a hermit removed from humans but happy to discover coyotes which are a passion. It is intriguing, this question of how she got to where she is, who she is.
The other main characters are introduced in the same way: a young widow who inherits a family farm that is not of her family, but her dead husband’s. She has no idea how to make a go of it. A retired cantankerous old man, a widower, whose chief habits are himself, his ways, and a desire to create the perfect disease-resistant chestnut tree. An independent old woman, an apple-raiser and organic produce seller, heartily making a go of life. There are other characters too, but these are the main.
The only real structural question is how Kingsolver will pull these disparate existences together into a single fabric. It takes a while, but she does. Each of them retains independence, but within the context of one-another. And characters ARE lost unto themselves, set aside, as each turns away from, rejects philosophy, and people, that they do not cotton to. The story(ies) have an arc, not unexpected conclusions, but there are surprises along the way too, and it is in all a satisfying read.
There are character flaws in the writing. For me, some are serious, real deal-breakers in my life and I’m not sure why they would not be in the lives of Kingsolver’s people. The forest ranger treats her lover abysmally at times: pure rejection, disdain, and even violence. Yet he accepts this? Comes back for more? The man-boy love interest of the farming widow, when push comes to shove, is firmly told where his place is, will forever be. It is not a place he wants (though he should for she right, though she is chiefly worried about appearances ). But then the widow suggests they go dancing in dance halls, on weekends, for the foreseeable future. Without regard to appearances? Or his desire for her as a woman? And the organic orchard keeper/farmer who has the intellect and will to impose order on and through nature, and her place among humans, despite what others believe, ends up accepting the mean old, self-seeking curmudgeon who has harrassed and belittled her for years? At this level these characters, to me are not relatable. The contradictions are too great, too personal. The hurts they impose are not seen as serious, or real, or even salient to the charchters those hurts are imposed upon.
It is a plot breakdown of some magnitude. It is great that women are getting what they most want. But it is unrealistic in this regard. Are there no consequences to bad treatment? I’m not sure that it’s believable that each of these smart, capable women would actually behave this way, much less get away with it. I cannot imagine, people (men or women) who would put up with going-no-where-push-pull-either-or for a whole summer, or as a character trait.
There’s a double standard at work here, and it’s based on gender/relationships. Her independent strong women, do not treat men well. No, not at all. And while the men are themselves strong and capable in their own right (meaning hard working, hard-headed, and self serving), they put up with a lot of dodgy treatment and I don’t get it. The standard cut the most when a troubled soon-to-be-orphaned girl ist taken under the loving wing and guidance of the farm widow. Her future is bright, her troubles made qualities. But the younger brother of the orphan girls? Barely in the story. Barely acknowledged. I couldn’t even understand why the poor boy was in the story except to be neglected first by his mother and then by his adoptive mother.
The larger theme of NATURE that the book uses as context is meant to work on this gender issue. Males seek, females may preen, in their own thousand ways, to have their picks of the men who desire them. Kingsolver is hugely successful in this. It works. The book is a great read. But I cannot help but think that her men are the moths who live only long enough to copulate. In this book, there is so little of them as people that I am disappointed. Women are strong and powerful, yes. But the men they mate? There is no place for them in this story. That they do not seem to have responses to the power of women is a missed opportunity to enrich the story, to build the female characters even more.
Kingsolver never mentions if the Rat Snake that ate the fledgling birds one character has nurtured along is a male or female. Her character has nurtured the snake too, as a way to git rid of detestable field mice. This snake, like men and women and all of nature, is protected only to bring destruction. This is what the lesson is: half good, half trouble, half gender, all nature. No one is to blame. No one makes choices beyond their nature. It is troubling, unsettled, and easy to say that all we humans are is this simple.
Maybe Kingsolver set the bar too high for me. She has been a great writer. And undoubtedly will be again. But I wanted more from her this time. I really did. I want every one of her works to be Poisonwood Bible. I want characters in relationships. I want to know what the coyotes are really all about. And I want to know what the prodigal is in the title.
A great entertaining read. A good book and story. But I wanted more, especially because I know she is capable. 14 months ago