What’s not to love about the novels of Barbara Kingsolver? In beneficent books like The Bean Trees, Pigs in Heaven, and Animal Dreams, she creates vivid domestic utopias, usually influenced by the wild landscapes of rural Appalachia or sun-bleached Arizona, where she declares herself pro-organic gardening and antiwar, in favor of good sex and against rudeness. In the beckoning kingdom of Kingsolver, thinking women (sexy even with their middle-aged bodies and stubborn ways), responsive men (sexy even when impermanent), and free-range children (handfuls but always worth it) can live in harmony, breathe clean air, and listen to National Public Radio. She offers a balm, a seductive glimpse of an abundant Eden near at hand for even the least spectacular, least perfect, least wrinkle-free of readers.
It’s enough to make you want to root an avocado pit in a glass of water and sing along with Paula Cole.
Sometimes, though, as in Prodigal Summer, an imperfect reader can chafe at the confines of the author’s horizonless heavens on earth. So much forgiveness, and fresh-baked pies, and women ovulating together, and information about gestation in goats! It’s enough to make you want to squash a cockroach and snarl along with Courtney Love.
After the exciting, rewarding leap she took with the best-selling Poisonwood Bible, away from home canning and deep into the lives of an American missionary family in the Belgian Congo of the 1960s, the new novel is a return to Kingsolver’s ”classic” style and subject matter. We’re back in fertile southern Appalachia, in Zebulon County, in a season so glorious with dappled things as to leap right out of a Gerard Manley Hopkins poem. And up and down the valley, women and coyotes are sniffing the air.
Literally. In the mountains, pheromones fly when Deanna, a solitary wildlife biologist who champions nature’s predators for their underappreciated contribution to ecological balance (she’s divorced, not yet 50), meets a much younger man, a hunter, while each is tracking the elusive coyote, canis latrans. In the hollow, Lusa, a young farmer’s widow (a splashy multicultural mix, half Palestinian and half Polish-Jewish, not yet 30) unknots the tangles of distrust that separate her from her late husband’s firmly rooted kin. Across the county, Nannie, an old nonconformist lady (not yet 80, her orchard pesticide-free), bickers with the fusty old widower next door.
It will come as no surprise to her acolytes that the author eventually twines all three of these admirable specimens of feminine self-actualization, and that coyotes are seen and heard regularly. Blended and otherwise do-it-yourself post-nuclear family groupings have always enchanted Kingsolver, as has the interconnectedness of humans and the rest of the natural world. The mating habits of a luna moth, the marvelous secrets revealed in animal droppings, and the best thing to do when surprised by a deadly copperhead snake equally inspire her, and the writer’s prose sings sweetest when she’s closely observing the earth with no thought to making poetry. Of an oak tree upended by a storm, she notices, ”the fallen tree still burgeoned with glossy oak leaves — probably still trying to scatter its pollen to the wind and set acorns as if its roots were not straggling in the breeze and its bulk doomed to firewood.”
But then, goodness gracious, Lusa has deep thoughts like, ”We’re only what we are: a woman cycling with the moon, and a tribe of men trying to have sex with the sky.” And Kingsolver herself has palpitations over Deanna’s intense erotic response to her young lover/hunter. (”She could not remember a more compelling combination of features on any man she’d ever seen.”) When they go to bed for the first time, ”It was the body’s decision, a body with no more choice of its natural history than an orchid has, or the bee it needs, and so they would both get lost here, she would let him in, anywhere he wanted to go.”
Cue the birds, the bees, the coyote’s wail, and pour yourself a mug of mint tea. But pass me a Scotch, will ya, it’s a little too peaceable a kingdom in here. B-