Prodigal Summer, by Barbara Kingsolver

This is the first Kingsolver book I’ve read, in spite of numerous recommendations from friends. I found much to like in it, not least the lovely illustrations of moths and other critters on the end papers, but also much that was problematic.

The title refers to the awesome fertility of a humid southern summer, when honeysuckle can overrun a wall in a single season. The story takes place on fictional Zebulon Mountain and the small farms of the nearby town of Egg Fork, clearly in the remote Appalachians. Although the state is not named, it appears to be Virginia or West Virginia. The setting is perhaps the best part of the book. Kingsolver captures the sweet, almost dreamy, explosion of life in the southern woods, lovingly describing mushrooms, softly rotted trees, mouse-eating snakes, and moths of all kinds. She brings to life the sounds of an old farmhouse and the wavy, antique glass of its windows.

Nestled in among the other fauna are three sets of people, whose stories intertwine. Deanna is a wildlife biologist living alone on the mountain, maintaining trails, expelling out-of-season hunters and—unofficially—searching for signs of coyotes moving into the area. She meets a mysterious stranger on the trail, a man whom she finds disturbing in more ways than one. Down the mountain, where civilization starts, Lusa struggles to adapt to the farm life she has married into and the extended family that comes with it. Closer to town, two elderly neighbors feud over pesticides and the way the world has changed in their lifetime.

I enjoyed these characters and their stories. Kingsolver switches gracefully from one story to another, delineating the change with chapter breaks. However, she is less graceful at drawing analogies between the lives and passions of her human characters and those of her critters. She pounds home the comparison, not just in one chapter but over and over.

The other area where I would have appreciated a little more subtlety was the proselytizing about ecology. Yes, I’m sympathetic to the cause, concerned about disturbed habitats and threatened (and actual) extinctions. But I don’t want to read lecture after lecture about it in a novel. I’m starting to think that there is just no way to talk about any creed or dogma in fiction. So many of my stories have ended up in the shredder because they turned into rants. For a writer, having strong opinions can be a real drawback! I struggle to figure out how to set up a path without bullying the reader down it, to suggest an alternative way to frame an issue without forcing it on the reader as this book forced its issues on me.

Still, despite its weaknesses, this was the right book to read, here in the middle of my own southern summer, with the sparrows, hummingbirds, cardinals, robins, and even a bright goldfinch today swarming over the feeders; tree frogs and crickets going crazy; vines crawling over the trees by the run; and the dank sweet smell of the run itself after a week of rain.

The Summer Book, by Tove Jansson

I loved this book. It’s quite short, a series of vignettes about a young girl named Sophia and her grandmother, drawn from summers spent on an island in the Gulf of Finland. Sophia’s father appears in some of the stories, but he is a peripheral presence, busy working at his desk or taking the boat out to get supplies. They are the only people on the island.

What is remarkable about these little stories is how tough they are. Jansson enters fully into the child’s world of magic forests, special bathrobes, and visiting friends. She manages to write about that world without a trace of sentimentality and so truthfully that I found myself stumbling over long-buried memories of my own childhood foraging in summer woods, clambering over rocks and peering at insects.

Even more refreshing is the grandmother’s resilient candor. The stories are most often from her point of view, and I loved the way she treats the child, directly, as an intelligent being who could be expected to hold up her end of things. The old woman doesn’t cater to Sophia or fawn over her, not even when the girl is shouting with anger or trying to hide her fear when swimming in deep water, not even when the subject of Sophia’s dead mother comes up. Yet the grandmother—whose aches and pains are relayed without self-pity, who crawls under bushes to hide the fact that she’s smoking a cigarette, who is not above using a swear word to distract the child—will work behind Sophia’s back to carve animals out of wood or create a Doge’s palace for a pretend Venice.

I find it incredibly hard to write about children. In many stories they are either syrupy sweet or too prescient, miniature adults. The child as lonely outsider has been done to death, and the bratty, know-it-all children who populate sitcoms are just plain annoying. But this book is a perfect model for how to write about a child in a way that is new and honest.

Case Histories, by Kate Atkinson

I wrote about Atkinson’s Behind the Scenes at the Museum back in April, a first novel I enjoyed so much that I snatched up this, more recent book when I spotted it in the bookstore. Case Histories fits into the mystery genre, having a series of crimes and a detective. However, it is unlike any other mystery I’ve read and, although they haven’t often shown up on this blog, I’ve read a lot of mysteries.

What I like about mysteries, beyond the fact that some of the best writing today can be found in them (just take a look at books by people like P.D. James, Ian Rankin, Iain Pears, and Arturo Perez-Reverte), is the puzzle. Yes, I’m one of those people. I like to do crossword puzzles, though not quite so much as I did in the days when my sons were still at home and we worked them round-robin on lazy Sunday mornings in front of the fire. My sons are now trying to convert me to cryptic crosswords, but I haven’t yet done enough to recognise the patterns and cues; finding a single answer is cause for major rejoicing, and I still remember the astonished pride with which I unraveled my first clue. (“Trainee pilots tie shoes”: L+aces=laces. Okay, I never said it was a hard one.)

Atkinson’s book is not so much about the puzzle, though there are questions to be answered and deaths to be understood, as it is about the emotions. She breaks what I never before realised was a cardinal rule of mystery-writing: don’t linger too long on the grief; get busy building the resolution. No, the losses here are wrenching, and continue to distort lives decades later.

In Case No. 1, a family goes to sleep in a quiet, middle-class neighborhood and wakes up to a disappearance that changes each of their lives forever. Case No. 3 takes us inside the life of a young woman trapped by a too-quick marriage, rural isolation, and a demanding baby (whom she refers to as “the bug”), all of which combine to create the kind of desperation that leads a fox to gnaw off its own leg. Case No. 4 concerns the detective himself, and his family’s past. But it was Case No. 2 that sent me reeling: a widowed lawyer whose love for his daughter permeates his life, whose fear for her safety evokes practical defenses, such as cautioning her against blind spots, and magical thinking, such as believing a train accident had filled the day’s quota of tragedy.

One of Atkinson’s gifts as a writer is the way she brings her characters to life—I could swear I knew Ruby Lennox from Museum personally, and in my dotage I’m sure I’ll get her mixed up with my real childhood friends—but participating so fully in their emotions means feeling their confusion and anger and desolation. In each of these cases, hurt, mourning with those left to carry on, I was reminded of Julian Green’s “a chasm coming between me and my life”, the way a single event can put a full stop on what came before and thrust you irrevocably into a new and alien reality, where your only hope is to reach a separate peace. Solutions are achieved here, peace even, but it is the grief that stays with me.

Truth & Beauty, by Ann Patchett

Memoirs have made up a good part of my reading list over the last few years while I struggled to shape my own story. The quality has varied widely, but even the duds raise questions that interest me, such as why the author selected these scenes and ordered them in this way. Sometimes even the poorly constructed ones have a few scenes that bring a particular time and place to life, scenes that stay with me. For example, I recently read M.F.K. Fischer’s Among Friends which I found tedious for the most part. Rather than a sustained narrative, it appeared to be a random collection of anecdotes such as those intended for the sake of children or grandchildren, i.e., people who care more about the writer than the story. However, there were several lovely and memorable scenes, such as one from a childhood summer at the shore where she swims out to a rock to collect mussels for dinner.

I picked up this memoir about Patchett’s friendship with Lucy Grealy, having read nothing by either woman, but intrerested by the inside flap’s promise that “Patchett shines light on the little explored (sic) world of women’s friendships”. However, the scene describing the start of their friendship left me uneasy and skeptical. Although the two had attended Sarah Lawrence at the same time, Lucy didn’t know Ann while Ann knew Lucy only as a campus “celebrity”. Yet Lucy’s first action when they meet at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop is to throw herself on Ann, wrapping her arms around Ann’s neck and her legs around Ann’s waist, weeping copiously with joy that Ann has arrived.

There is a lot more weeping throughout the book as Lucy—who is also presented as outgoing and popular, with hordes of friends—continues to cling to Ann, demanding that Ann constantly acknowledge that she loves Lucy best, better than any other girlfriend, better than any boyfriend or husband. On one occasion, when the two are lunching with Ann’s new friend Elizabeth, Lucy pulls this stunt, sitting on Ann’s lap, demanding to be told Ann loves her best, eating off of Ann’s plate. Ann writes, “I was a little embarrassed, but only because I was afraid that Elizabeth might not understand Lucy, or understand me for letting her get away with it.” At that point, a third of the way through the book, I did not understand either.

I found this book deeply disturbing and not in any way representative of women’s friendships as I know them. True, the writing is beautiful and powerful. True, Lucy faced severe and uncommon trials. But, if this account is accurate (a disclaimer that must always be made about a memoir), the “friendship” between these two women was a classic addict/enabler relationship. Lucy was addicted not just to the heroin that eventually killed her but to being the center of attention always, attention that Ann and Lucy’s other friends lavished on her, along with money, food, clothes, apartments, etc. “She liked to be carried,” Ann writes.

From this account, I could see where Lucy’s incandescent personality (when she wasn’t crying) could be fun to be around. For a few minutes. However, it wouldn’t be long before I would be running like crazy in the other direction. There are some people who can never get enough attention; their neediness is like a bottomless pit inside them (as a friend of mine described it). Expecting someone to devote themselves to the Sisyphean task of trying to fill that pit goes beyond the bounds of friendship, in my opinion.

If I can get over the creepiness of the story, I will go back and try to analyze the writing itself to understand how Patchett achieves such remarkable power in her prose. And I will keep looking for a good memoir about women’s friendship.