I had read a couple of her early books and thought they were well done. In conversation, she was charming, engaging and genuine.
In the years since then, however, I confess that I haven’t really kept up with her work. Oh, I’ve read the reviews, most of them very favorable, and some people who have read her books have told me how much they liked, even loved, them. But other books always seemed more pressing to read, and I never got around to Ms. Kingsolver’s.
I was late in reading her newest novel, “The Lacuna,” published last year.
Maybe because of my gross negligence in reading her recent books, I was totally unprepared for this experience.
What a book. I was totally wowed by it. Barbara Kingsolver is clearly a writer at the top of her game.
In the first place, “The Lacuna” is beautifully written and carefully crafted. So many sentences are true gems. But most people don’t read books for style. They’re drawn to plot, character or perhaps setting. Those readers will not be disappointed. Ms. Kingsolver makes you think you are there — especially in the sections of the book set in Mexico and Asheville, N.C. She brings to life some prominent historical characters: the artists Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo and the anti-Stalinist Marxist Leon Trotsky. She also develops a vibrant lead character in the half Mexican-half American cook turned writer Harrison Shepherd and several lesser, but thoroughly believable, characters, including, especially, Shepherd’s secretary, the sensible, sensitive, human Appalachian native Violet Brown. For readers who crave plot, the book is a page turner, crafted from diary entries, letters and occasional — and all too believable — error-filled newspaper stories.
But the whole is greater than all these parts. “The Lacuna” is really a book about the United States, a nation founded on idealism but flawed by hate and ignorance. Good people populate its pages, often good people who are apolitical, but so do people who are politically motivated while possessing limited understanding of the notions that should make their country stronger. Questions about what makes us “un-American” are central to this tale, which comes to its crashing climax at the peak of the McCarthy era.
Lacuna is defined multiple times in slightly different ways during the course of the novel, but here’s the first definition:
Laguna? The lagoon?
No, lacuna. [Leandro, the Mexican cook who mentored the book’s protagonist] said it means a different thing from lagoon. Not a cave exactly, but an opening, like a mouth, that swallows things. He opened his mouth to show. It goes into the belly of the world. …
While that image might seem vague, it becomes clearer as the book progresses. So too do other references, including the opening scene’s howler monkeys.
Ultimately, this is a book that speaks to our times, although its last entry is in 1959.
I don’t want to spoil the experience for anyone by saying too much. But I will say this: Read this book. I don’t say this lightly. Only a couple of books in the past 50 or 60 years come close to deserving this kind of praise from anyone, but Barbara Kingsolver’s “The Lacuna” might just be the long-awaited Great American Novel.