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Barbara Kingsolver – The Lacuna

December 23, 2009

148. The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver (2009)

Length: 507 pages
Genre: Historical/Literary Fiction

Started: 28 November 2009
Finished: 14 December 2009

Where did it come from? Preordered from Amazon.
Why do I have it? Kingsolver’s one of my favorite authors, and this is her first new novel in almost a decade.

History and a
sense of self – where do we fit,
and where are the gaps?

“The most important thing about a person is always the thing you don’t know.” – p. 218

Summary: Harrison Shepard has never really fit in anywhere: born to a Mexican mother and an American father, he’s never really had a country to call his own. He’s dragged to Mexico by his capricious and gold-digging mother, where he begins keeping a journal. After a brief stint in the United States for boarding school during the Depression, he returns to Mexico, where he becomes a cook in the house of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, famous artists and Socialists. After the Russian Revolution, Trotsky’s exile brings him to Mexico, and to the house of the Riveras, where Harrison becomes his secretary. When Trotsky is murdered, Harrison flees to the U.S., which is caught in the grip of World War II. Harrison is able to channel his lifetime passion for writing into a successful career as an author – until the war is over, and the Anti-Communist fervor grips the country.

Review: Barbara Kingsolver is one of my favorite authors. I was so looking forward to her first new novel in nine years that I pre-ordered it, new, in hardcover (and those are three things I never, ever do.) I really, really wanted to love it as much as I loved Poisonwood Bible or Prodigal Summer. So please believe me that it is killing me to say this, but: I didn’t particularly enjoy The Lacuna, and in fact had to struggle to even get through it.

Technically, and thematically, it is a lovely and well-executed book. It is very different in style (and subject) than any of Kingsolver’s previous novels, but the language she uses is still carefully crafted and stunningly beautiful. Also, she deftly weaves her themes – of the role of the artist, and the relationship between the artist and the public; of the need for, and cost of, privacy; of the interplay between politics, journalism, and truth; of how well anyone can know someone else’s life – throughout the book. There was a lot of potential for the metaphors that she carries along from the first page to become ponderous and over-done, but Kingsolver deftly avoids that trap as well. She writes about what it means to be American, what it means to belong, what it means to be home, as well as she ever has.

My problem was the story, and the characters – or, maybe more accurately, the lack thereof. Harrison is self-effacing to the extreme, and even when reading his journals, I found it really hard to get inside his head and really make an emotional connection with him. When the protagonist is such a cipher (and content to remain so), it becomes very difficult to maintain any involvement in the story. Harrison sort of Forrest-Gumps his way through Mexican and American history of the 1930s and 40s, always on the edge of important events, the perpetual observer, the eternal outsider. Throughout the story, important things were happening, but since I didn’t feel any connection to the main character, it became very hard for me to care.

Technically, thematically, and literarily, this book was wonderful, but unfortunately, those by themselves are not things that make me eager to pick a book back up once I’ve set it down. A book can be intellectually fantastic, but if there’s not some visceral or emotional pull to go along with it, it’s going to be a struggle. 3 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: I think this will probably work best for readers of literary fiction, or folks who aren’t as reliant on character-driven narrative as I appear to be (or, alternately, for those who do like character-driven stuff but find Harrison to be more interesting than I did.) For Kingsolver fans, I’d recommend browsing a few chapters or borrowing it first to see how you get along before buying – it’s different enough from her previous work that liking the one is no guarantee of liking the other.

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

Other Reviews: Fizzy Thoughts, Marireads, Ratskellar Reads, Small World Reads
Have you reviewed this book? Leave a comment with the link and I’ll add it in.

First Line: In the beginning were the howlers.

Cover Thoughts: It’s graphic, and memorable, for sure. I like that the little blue spot is actually a cut-out to the blue hardcover underneath, which seems to fit well with the title, and with the metaphor of the lacuna that runs throughout the book.

Vocab: (see the whole list)

  • p. 6: “Leandro, the cook, took pity on the flutie boy from America who had nothing to do all day but poke around in the cliffs along the beach, pretending to hunt for something.” – internet is being no help here, but I’m thinking it means effeminate?
  • p. 8: “They smelled the zocalo first: roasted vanilla beans, coconut milk candies, boiled coffee.” – the main plaza or square.
  • p. 13: “The last galopina was a pretty girl, Ofelia, too much admired by Enrique, given the sack by Salomé.” – helper in the kitchen of a restaurant
  • p. 34: “He came back from the Day of the Dead with his hair tied in a special way, the horse-tail in back wound with henequen string.” – the fiber of an agave, used for making ropes, coarse fabrics, etc.
  • p. 34: “Natividad came in then with the tomatoes and epazote from the market, so there was no chance to say No lo supe.” – the pungent leaves of the wormseed plant, used as a seasoning in Mexican cooking.
  • p. 57: “It took a long time to walk back, but Mother wasn’t angry. She’d found a couple of dinchers in the pocket of her yellow dress.” – a pinched-out cigarette end.
  • p. 103: “He survives every time. Yelling his head off that it was going to be a real sockdolager.” – a decisive reply, argument, etc.; a heavy, finishing blow
  • p. 111: “But that particular one he plucked out first from among all the notebooks and pages he kept in portmanteau bindings on a shelf in his study.” – a case or bag to carry clothing in while traveling, esp. a leather trunk or suitcase that opens into two halves. In this case, I think it’s being used to mean a variety or hodgepodge?
  • p. 140: “They argue about everything: Which is better, art or philosophy? Easel art for the bourgeoisie, or murals for the public? Which is the more nationalist, pulque or tequila?” – a fermented milky drink made from the juice of certain species of agave in Mexico.
  • p. 171: “The commissar was quite a sight, working in his big straw hat and old-fashioned balbriggans.” – a plain-knit cotton fabric, used esp. in hosiery and underwear.
  • p. 297: “He wants it titled Vassals of Majesty, which is silly, as the characters are vassals of cupiditas and greed.” – desire.
  • p. 297: “All last night in south Asheville a crowd stood along the tracks in the cold, hoping to see the catafalque and coffin inside the lighted car when the cortege passed through.” – a raised structure on which the body of a deceased person lies or is carried in state.
  • p. 414: “I’ve got an apartment in the Lower East Seventies now, very voot.” – money; wealthy or rich, swank.
29 Comments leave one →
  1. December 23, 2009 8:28 am

    I’m crushed! I was holding off reading this so I could have it as a treat later on. When you say he’s on the edge of events – are the events themselves explained, or is Kingsolver depending on our knowledge of history? Because I know virtually nothing about Mexico in this time period…

    • December 23, 2009 1:51 pm

      Jenny – No, the events are pretty well explained, I think. My only real background on the Russian Revolution was reading Animal Farm in high school, and I managed to keep up just fine. The only real background that I think you would need would be some familiarity with Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo… rent the movie and Google image-search some of their paintings, and you should be set. :)

  2. December 23, 2009 12:10 pm

    I’m so disappointed to read this because Barbara Kingsolver is one of my favorite authors too. Yours isn’t the first review I’ve read that says it’s not up ot her standards.

    • December 23, 2009 1:53 pm

      bermudaonion – The writing is pure Kingsolver, no question, but it’s also true that Harrison just doesn’t have the charm of Adah and Leah, or Deanna Wolfe, or Taylor Greer, or any of her other protagonists.

  3. trapunto permalink
    December 23, 2009 12:38 pm

    I’ll probably read it anyway, but thanks for the warning. Could be a typo for flighty. The only time I’ve heard “flutie” is in reference to a “flutie voice.” Which seems to suggest what you suspected. Or the male main character in Meg McCafferty’s Sloppy Firsts. Which always suggested, to me, a traditional metaphor I won’t spell out. . .

    • December 23, 2009 1:54 pm

      trapunto – There are portions of the book that are full of 1930s/40s slang, and I’m pretty sure this is one of them. Normally, the internet can sort that sort of thing out, but I wasn’t willing to wade through pages and pages of search results about the football player to get a definitive answer.

  4. trapunto permalink
    December 23, 2009 12:39 pm

    Oh, and what a great word “dinchers” is!

  5. December 23, 2009 1:38 pm

    I think I’ll pass on this one. I have a hard time with books when I don’t feel any connection whatsoever to the main character. “The Poisonwood Bible” is the only Kingsolver book I’ve read, and I loved it.


    • December 23, 2009 1:55 pm

      Anna – Oh, then yes, give this one a pass and go read the rest of her novels instead! Prodigal Summer is my favorite, but the rest are also great.

  6. December 23, 2009 2:42 pm

    I think I’ve seen this book before. Oh, I saw it in this indiebound list (I think.) As usual they said it was “wonderful.” Literary books usually never appeal to me. But, the other books sound appealing.

    • December 26, 2009 4:32 pm

      fyrebyrd – Some literary fiction works for me, some doesn’t – even within the same author.

  7. December 23, 2009 4:01 pm

    Oh that’s never fun when one of your favorite authors puts out something less than up to par. Especially when she hasn’t written anything in quite awhile :(

    • December 26, 2009 4:32 pm

      Ladytink – I know, it’s sad. Maybe I’ll have to content myself with a re-read of some earlier stuff.

  8. December 23, 2009 9:20 pm

    While I’m sorry it didn’t live up to your expectations, I am glad that I’m not alone in finding it a bit flat. I think the Forrest Gump comparison is spot on.

    Excellent review!

    • December 26, 2009 4:34 pm

      softdrink – At least Forrest Gump left his house occasionally! :) I’m sorry Kingsolver isn’t your cup of tea – Prodigal Summer is one of my favorite books ever – but different strokes. I also can’t believe I missed your link… I’ll add it in!

  9. December 27, 2009 4:46 pm

    This book had so much promise, but it disappointed me… I still liked it, but I felt there was potential for me to love it and it fell short. :(

  10. December 27, 2009 8:27 pm

    I’m so sad that you and everyone else seem disappointed in this book, because I got it for Christmas. I’ll still be reading it, though, with Kingsolver I just have to see for myself.

  11. Mary Ann Clark permalink
    December 29, 2009 12:57 pm

    I share your disappointment but perhaps some of the problem is our own. Having great expectations of others is often a recipe for disappointment. After Poisonwood Bible and Prodigal Summer having expectations for a third charm may be bit much.

  12. Christine permalink
    January 17, 2010 4:21 pm

    I loved the book. I found it equally as good as Prodigal Summer and probably more historically important. It seems rather poignant as our media continues to sway public opinion to extremes that are scarey to me.
    I had no problem relating to the main character either. I admit I was an art history major and may be more intrigued by the story than some because of the ties to Rivera and Kahlo.
    I fully recommend it. One of the best books I’ve read in a long time.

  13. February 21, 2010 3:50 pm

    Using Google to find book reviews on The Lacuna, I found yours. I’ve posted your link on my blog. Here’s the direct link:

  14. July 26, 2010 2:50 pm

    I haven’t read Kingsolver before, but I really enjoyed the book – I read the reserve of Harrison as part of the book’s narrative about what we can’t know about others – my review below.

    Thanks for an interesting new perspective though – and feel free to leave a comment and link to your blog on mine.

  15. February 14, 2011 6:55 am

    Oh, I couldn’t agree more! I was totally disappointed. Honestly, I was almost happy when he died at the end, it was sooo dull!

    Here’s my review –

  16. MaryAnn Gless permalink
    June 2, 2012 7:23 am

    A very good read. Slow to get started but so worth getting to know this character throught his life. I had never read any of Ms. Kingslover before but look forward to reading them now.


  1. The Lacuna – Barbara Kingsolver – Farm Lane Books Blog
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  4. Book Review: The Lacuna | The Indiscriminate Critic
  5. Book Review: The Lacuna | The Indiscriminate Critic
  6. Barbara Kingsolver – Flight Behavior | Fyrefly's Book Blog

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