Saturday, December 04, 2010

The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver

Published in 2009. 507 pages.

I have been a fan of Barbara Kingsolver for twenty or so years, since I first fell in love with Taylor and Turtle in The Bean Trees. I have read all five of her previous novels, although I've yet to read her short stories or non-fiction books. And I had been wanting to read The Lacuna since its publication a year ago, but I was a little hesitant to jump right into it because of the length. (I've been feeling more reading satisfaction lately with short, quick reads.)

Because The Lacuna was the November pick for the Book Buddies, I started reading it in mid-November. It did prove to be a slow read for me - mostly because I was working on several non-reading projects during parts of November, but also, I'll assert, because it's a book that requires thought and time to process. I finished the book yesterday, after devoting a fairly large block of time on Thursday to it. In the end, I have to say that it's an amazing book!

    la·cu·na n. \lə-ˈkü-nə, -ˈkyü-\
    1: a blank space or a missing part : gap; also : deficiency
    2: a small cavity, pit, or discontinuity in an anatomical structure

The Lacuna takes the reader on an epic journey from the Mexico City of artists Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo to the America of FDR and J. Edgar Hoover as it relates the poignant story of Harrison Shepherd, a man pulled between two nations as they invent their modern identities.

I think much of the overarching theme of the book - and certainly a partial explanation of the title - is illustrated by this passage:
I didn't say what Frida would have. That you can't really know the person standing before you, because always there is some missing piece: the birthday like an invisible piñata hanging great and silent over his head, as he stands in his slippers boiling the water for coffee. The scarred, shrunken leg hidden under a green silk dress. A wife and son back in France. Something you never knew. That is the heart of the story. [page 325]

I got a good sense of place from the novel, particularly the sections set in Mexico. I have only visited Mexico once, but I could vividly picture some of what I saw there as I read about Harrison and Frida visiting an archeological dig and about Harrison and Violet visiting Chichén Itzá.

In a hearing before the Committee on Un-American Activities, Harrison Shepherd comments, "Art takes its meaning in the eye of the beholder" [page 488]. In that spirit, I took away many political messages from Kingsolver's tale. In my opinion, there are, sadly and frighteningly, so many similarities between the fear- and hate-filled atmosphere of the anti-Communist McCarthy era and the fear- and hate-filled rhetoric I hear in many places today. I recently read the following in an essay about faith:
There is nothing that will tear the fabric of society more quickly in a crisis than fear and panic.
That was followed, appropriately, by this quote from Franklin Delano Roosevelt:
The only thing we have to fear is fear itself - nameless, unreasoning, unjustified, terror which paralyzed needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.
It's too bad that the country didn't remember FDR's statement long past his death!

I've read two other works of historical fiction recently, one I loved and one I didn't. As with The Day the Falls Stood Still, I learned a lot from The Lacuna - both about history and about myself. I guess I found The Lacuna to be the kind of historical novel that I had wanted The Postmistress to be - multi-layered but cohesive, meaningful, beautiful, and satisfying!



  1. I stopped by your blog today. Thanks for the review. I've heard of this author but never read any of her books, I'll add her to the list.

  2. Ann: Thanks for stopping by! I highly recommend all of Barbara Kingsolver's novels!

  3. I hope to get to this one this month for Orange January. I thought The Poisonwood Bible was excellent.