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A love letter to Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver

October 3, 2008

Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver (2000)

Length: 464 pages

Genre: Literary Fiction

I generally don’t write reviews of books I’m re-reading, and certainly not of books I’m re-reading for the nth time. If I like a book enough to read it many times over, I usually can’t articulate why I love it so much – I just do. But damned if I’m not going to try anyways for Prodigal Summer. Kingsolver is easily one of my favorite authors, and this book is what made it so. I’ve read the book two or three times, and listened to the audiobook (read wonderfully by Kingsolver herself) at least that many (and am currently in the middle of yet another re-listen). So, for the sake of those of you who might not have heard of it, or might have passed it over in the past, here’s my love letter to this wonderful book. I’ll try to keep the fangirl SQUEEEEing to a minimum.

Summary: Prodigal Summer is an interweaving of three storylines, all taking place during the course of one summer in and around Egg Fork, Tennessee. In the chapters entitled “Predators”, Deanna Wolf, forest ranger and wildlife biologist lives alone in a small cabin in the National Forest, watching the changes wrought in the ecosystem by the return of a predator – the coyote. When she meets Eddie Bondo, a young rancher who hunts coyotes for sport, they are powerfully physically drawn together, despite the ideological differences that threaten to tear them apart. In “Moth Love”, newly-married and newly-widowed city girl Lusa is left alone on her husband’s family farm, surrounded by unfamiliar and hostile in-laws, and facing the prospect of carving out a place for herself in farming and in her new family. In “Old Chestnuts”, Garnett Walker, a retired agriculture teacher whose pet project is the cultivation of a blight-resistant American Chestnut tree, butts heads with his free-spirited and utterly confounding neighbor, Nannie Rawley. Though initially seeming quite disparate, these three stories slowly reveal their connections, ultimately resulting in a vibrant tapestry rich with luna moths and magnolia warblers, coyotes and chestnut trees, life and death and humor and love and place and home and belonging.

Review: Prodigal Summer has been called Barbara Kingsolver’s “sex book,” both disparagingly and with affection. There certainly are a few “on-camera” sex scenes, although they’re not written particularly graphically – Kingsolver herself has said while the themes of sex and fecundity are central to the novel, perhaps the most graphic sex scene is a dream sequence between a woman and a giant moth. However, to call it her “sex book” is to dismiss it too easily, and to overlook what I think is the point of the story. It’s only about sex insomuch as everything in life is about sex – the struggle of each individual to pass on their genes, and leave something of themselves to the next generation. Calling it her “biology book” would be better (more on that in a minute), but the main theme of this book isn’t sex, or biology – it’s interconnection. This is most immediately apparent in the interlacing of the three storylines, which seem totally unrelated at first, but slowly yield up their connections, both major and minor, revealing the infinite number of tiny but not insubstantial ways that each of us touch the lives around us. But more than just personal interconnection, it also speaks to the connection of people to their environment, of the threads that bind us to the non-human lives around us – and of them to each other – resulting in a world that is a shining mass of sparkling threads of connection, where each life – moth, tree, or human – affects every other, and each life matters.

The ultimate result of this finely-drawn sense of connection is that Zebulon County emerges as a place with a sense of Place; essentially another character in its own right. I first read Prodigal Summer in the spring of 2002, long before I’d ever been to Appalachia, but Egg Fork and the surrounding mountains were more real to me than any place I’d encountered in a novel before. Now, six years and several summers of working in the southern Appalachian mountains later, I can say that Kingsolver absolutely gets it right. The forest, the small town, the farms, the people, the animals, the mountains – it’s all there, vividly drawn, and pulsing with Life. Her characters are similarly real; by the end of the book you feel like you’ve known these people your whole life – not people like them, but them. Even with only a third as much space per story as in a traditional novel, Kingsolver still manages to draw complex, multi-layered, and lovably flawed people who feel as though you would recognize them walking down the street.

I will admit that I was predisposed to like this book – Kingsolver has a degree in biology (my own field), and was a science writer before becoming a full-time author. You can see the traces of this in all of her books, but nowhere is it brought to the fore like in Prodigal Summer. At the same time, the biology isn’t blatant – it simultaneously motivates the stories without overshadowing them. Subtle points about ecology, evolution, and natural history are woven into the the overall framework, complementing and informing rather than detracting from the human drama.

I said that this is the book that made me love Kingsolver as a writer, but I’d like to do that one better. This is the book that makes me want to be a writer; this is the book I wish I could have written. I’ve read it enough times that I know some passages and bits of dialogue and turns of phrase by heart, but every time I read it, I’m left in awe of her powers of story construction and character development. Every time I read it, I’m left with a renewed sense of wonder in the the power of Life, and a renewed appreciation for what a miraculous, sacred place and community we are all a part of. 5 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: Highly, highly recommended, obviously. :)

This Review on LibraryThing | This Book on LibraryThing | This Book on Amazon

First Lines:

Her body moved with the frankness that comes from solitary habits. But solitude is only a human presumption. Every quiet step is thunder to beetle life underfoot; every choice is a world made new for the chosen.

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36 Comments leave one →
  1. October 3, 2008 6:43 am

    This is just about the only book of Kingsolver’s I haven’t read (other than Animal, Vegetable Mineral, which I’m just waiting to find not-full price). Now I guess I’d better go and find it somewhere! Very loving love letter.

  2. October 3, 2008 6:56 am

    Barbara Kingsolver is one of my favorites. I would so love to meet her.

  3. October 3, 2008 7:29 am

    DoB – There are a few copies available on BookMooch. Because, if I can’t be adding to my own TBR pile, I’m busy enabling others. :-D

    bermudaonion – I actually saw her not long after I read Prodigal Summer for the first time – her husband and I work in (roughly) the same field, so I saw them at the closing banquet of a conference I was attending. I was waaaay too starstruck to go over and say anything to her, though.

  4. October 3, 2008 11:10 am

    Oh, I already mooched it this morning before work, even though I have ALMOST no points due to too much international mooching lately.

  5. October 3, 2008 11:19 am

    DoB – Smooched! No one should be out of points. :)

  6. October 3, 2008 11:20 am

    You rock. Thanks so much!

  7. October 3, 2008 12:59 pm

    Nicki, EXCELLENT review!

    I too loved this book.

    I don’t remember the sex. I do remember the biology aspect and how I came away with more respect for ecosystems. And, what I remember most is the intertwining of characters and story lines which had such a powerful effect on me.

  8. October 3, 2008 3:08 pm

    I read this a long time ago, so the details are fuzzy; I’ll have to re-read at some point!

    Re: audio books. I’ve only listened to a handful, but my favorites are author-read.

  9. October 3, 2008 4:30 pm

    What a great review! I read this when it came out and fell in love with the story, characters and the writing! I am not a biologist so don’t relate to that part but have an appreciation for the science. I did enjoy my college biology class. Her writing is truly amazing in this book. It is not to be compared to Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, IMO. That book was a totally different style but excellent for its purpose. I highly recommend it.

  10. October 3, 2008 6:45 pm

    hey.. i read poisonwood bible and loved it.. havent read any of her books apart from that.. i had no idea that she had a biology degree:) i immediately like people like that.. you obviously know me and know why!!:)

  11. October 3, 2008 9:29 pm

    Shana – It may just be that I don’t mind sex in my novels, so it doesn’t register as strongly with me as with other people, but I never really got why people went on and on about the sex in this one… especially since there’s really only on-camera sex in the “Predators” chapters.

    Dawn – This is a great audiobook; Kingsolver said that she read it herself because she didn’t trust the accents to someone else who might do a fake, exaggerated hillbilly version of her “mother tongue.” There’s also snippets of Appalachian birdsong between the chapters, which I think is a really nice touch.

    Bonnie – I’ve got Animal, Vegetable, Miracle sitting on my TBR pile, but I’ve been a little resistant, because the essays I enjoyed least from Small Wonder were the ones about food – I felt a little like they were lecturing me and berating me for being a bad person.

    Ramya – If you loved Poisonwood Bible and biology, you should definitely check this one out… I think it’s a little tighter that Poisonwood, because it’s shorter and not quite as ambitious in scope, plus by the time she finished Poisonwood and started Prodigal, she had the multiple narrators style down cold.

    Diana Gabaldon (author of the Outlander books) also has a biology degree, although it’s not nearly as prevalent in her books – probably due to subject matter.

  12. October 4, 2008 12:43 am

    Wow! I’m now re-thinking my decision of giving Poisonwood Bible to my aunt-in-law before I read it….

  13. October 4, 2008 2:42 am

    This is one of my favorites too and I also have a hard time pinpointing why I like it so much. I didn’t remember the scene of sex with a giant moth!

  14. October 4, 2008 10:20 am

    Gorgeous review!! Wow. I think Kingsolver is a genius :)

  15. October 4, 2008 5:29 pm

    Wow!!! I have this book on my shelf along with a few other Kingsolver books but I haven’t been able to bring myself to read them. If I find a book that I really love (The Poisonwood Bible in this case) I search for books by the author but then I don’t read them because I’m afraid they won’t live up. :) Soooo, I guess I should stop neglecting this one!

  16. October 4, 2008 7:12 pm

    Wow. I loved this book. The s-x scenes certainly were prominent (at least it seemed so to me) but well-written and not offensive. I loved how the stories of the different characters were interwoven and came together in the end, and seeing different viewpoints of the same thing. I loved her Poisonwood Bible too, and read Animal, Vegetable Miracle recently. That one was fabulous.

  17. Jupiter permalink
    October 5, 2008 1:19 pm

    Barbara Kingsolver is one of my favorite authors. I typically can’t articulate how much I love her. When reading Animal Vegetable Miracle,I remember thinking that if Barabara Kingsolver were my neighbor,my life would be absolutely perfect hehe. I’m such a dork :P

  18. October 5, 2008 1:37 pm

    Ladytink – Have you not read any Kingsolver yet? If so, you’re in for a treat! Poisonwood Bible is a lot of people’s favorite… I liked it a lot, although I thought the last third was stretched out a little too long.

    Lenore – The dream sequence between Lusa & the moth is pretty early, and it’s over quickly… but Kingsolver brings it up in interviews when asked about the sex in this book.

    Corinne – I’m not arguing!

    Trish – I know the feeling! Still, while I think Poisonwood and Prodigal are her best, even her earlier books are quite good if you go into them expecting a little less polish.

    Jeane – Funny how some things stick out so differently for different readers! But I agree that even during the on-screen sex, it’s written so well that it doesn’t seem out of place.

    Jupiter – Hee hee, that *would* be great… especially if she shared the fruits of her garden. :)

  19. October 6, 2008 7:47 am

    No I haven’t. I’ll nominate something by her for my next group read.

  20. October 8, 2008 8:30 am

    I read The Poisonwood Bible recently and loved it. I’ll give this one a try, too. Sex with a giant moth. Now that’s one I haven’t heard before. LOL

  21. October 8, 2008 3:35 pm

    Kingsolver’s one of my favorites, too, and I loved this book!

  22. October 9, 2008 9:08 pm

    Ladytink – Cool! Hope your book group picks it!

    Anna – Heh. Admittedly, it is a dream sequence, and we’ve probably all had dreams like that (meaning that they don’t make a whole lot of sense, not the sex with a moth-man part), but it is a little silly.

    dew – Well, I’m in good company, then! :)

  23. October 12, 2008 1:21 pm

    Maybe I’ll try this one. I started The Bean Trees but couldn’t get into it.

  24. October 12, 2008 3:13 pm

    charley – The Bean Trees is kind of a special case; since it’s her first novel, it’s noticeably uneven and just not quite as good as her later stuff. Going back and reading it after you’ve read her later books is better, I think, since you can see the seeds of her later ideas, but you’re not put off by the rough edges.

  25. alice permalink
    April 20, 2009 11:25 am

    My young son was given this book to read as first year college project. I read it too just to see what it it was about. I was not as impressed as the rest of you. I don’t care for the sexual descriptions. it seems she is trying to put humans and nature in the same category. She puts down anybody that believes in God and morality. When God and morality are left out that is exactly what you get; people procreating like animals. Having children with no real families. Never knowing what it’s like to have both a father and mother. In some cases not knowing who his father is. Animals act according to instinct, humans have the ability to reason and can choose which path to follow, therefore they are really not like animals. I am convinced if animals could reason as humans do they would choose a better path than humans have. According to the book Coyotes mate for life, which shows their insticts are better than most humans reasoning.

  26. November 7, 2009 11:51 am

    i have just read this book for the first time and i will read it again and again – it was like a precious treasure trove and i limited myself to how much i read in one session – it wasn’t a book to gorge myself on – it was one to savour

    kingsolver’s writing is beautiful and i felt transported – i wanted to be there, to smell the air, feel the sun’s warmth on my skin and the wind and rain on my face

    i wanted to embrace the characters; i empathised with them – i am a single mother and a grandmother, no biologist, no -ologies, but a love of nature and a belief in nurture

    my book group first introduced me to kingsolver with the poisonwood bible which i quite liked, but did not love and would want to read again – surprisingly, the majority preferred it to this one – not so me – but i am a romantic.

    the only drawback – i read it at the wrong time of year; it’s cold, it’s winter and it’s bleak. the next time i open its pages, i shall make sure the sun is shining, the birds are chirping, bees are buzzing and i’m out there with them

  27. asia meana permalink
    November 11, 2009 4:37 pm

    i am also re-listening. her voice alone adds so much texture to the story. writing a love letter was a good idea–its really a challenge to come to grips with the raw emotion i feel the ENTIRE time i am experiencing this wonderful book. absolutely and without a doubt one of my favorite works of literature of all time.

    and yes, meeting her would be a dream come true.

    cant wait to read lacuna!

  28. Angill permalink
    December 5, 2009 6:01 am

    I have just finished a degree and have found it difficult to find any fiction books that hold my attention. This book surely got my attention and I haven’t put it down. I’m sure I must have read six times over dipping in and out and savouring the story which is like soothing balm to the eyes and brain. It also makes me want to write but then I’d rather read this book than fail dismally as I’m no story teller.

  29. alice permalink
    January 7, 2010 3:14 pm

    i’m in the middle of kingsolver’s latest: ‘the lacuna’. having visited mexico city on a couple of occasions and walked through frida kahlo’s blue house, i am so in love with this book. how can one write so well?
    plan to re-read prodigal and poisonwood soon.

  30. July 11, 2010 4:46 am

    I am 300 pages into the book and I’m afraid to finish it. Every description is bursting with life that it’s almost tragic. She spent all this time trying to give us this rich, pungent experience and I can barely go into why it’s so awesome! I thank you deeply for this love letter. This is my first Kingsolver book. I got it in hardback from the library, and can you believe they were selling this amazing masterpiece for ONE dollar? It makes me mad, but I know I wouldn’t have run into this book if it wasn’t on that shelf.

    On a side note, I feel that Deanna’s character comes off too strongly at times, and sort of pontificating. I like her feral (“she-wolf”) side and her hard-headed agedness and emotional turmoil, but I feel that though she is full of texture, she lacks the sympathetic depth of Lusa and Garnett. I am hoping that more intimate details about her marriage, which has been alluded to substantially, will bring more understanding to the forefront.

    I put this book in the vein of great reads, like Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. The richness of the prose is startling, and equally matched with the emotional complexity and the empathy for both the human experience and nature’s.

  31. July 11, 2010 4:51 am

    P.S. It’s so awesome that you are actually IN the setting she wrote about! It must be freaking amazing to be in the thick of Nature’s best. Oh, God, if I could write a fourth as good as Kingsolver, I would be so happy.

  32. Prothalamium permalink
    June 6, 2013 11:25 am

    Excellent review! I am so glad that others share my appreciation for this book. I have listened to it on tape at least 6 times, and I always find that I get something out of it each time I listen. The central theme of interconnection is a comforting reminder of what so many of us tend to lose sight of in the hustle and bustle of our lives. It makes me realize what is important to me– nature, friendship, family– not the “lone wall paperer room full of mute birds, and flowers that falsely bloom, and closets choked with dreams that long ago died” (Prothalamium by Aaron Kramer, the book’s epigraph).

    I, too, I think that it is wonderful that you are living in Appalachia– in an area similar to Egg Fork I have to say that I am very jealous!

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