Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver


A breeze shook rain out of new leaves onto their hair,
but in their pursuit of eternity they never noticed the chill.

So, for the first time in my adult life, I own a garden.  No, no, not just a slip of dirt housing a die-hard cactus battling for survival as I nourish it with the dregs of my bottled water: An actual plot of soil. A little lot of earth with the potential to become a wilderness of flowers and foliage and, quite possibly, play host to an array of succulents once I realise that anything more dainty is doomed to scorching on my side of the country.

I have toiled and weeded and planted – all within the past week of my moving in – and I type this with slightly battered city girl-hands that never dreamed that they’d be expected to handle a shovel and sow seeds. Yesterday afternoon, I thought I might as well admit that my idyllic gardening reveries have gone to rest in the puffy clouds above. This is back-breaking stuff. I nearly wept after accidentally destroying a little gecko’s home and I did not really need to make the acquaintance of those wondrous creepy crawlies Mother Nature keeps buried beneath her soil. But then… Having my hands in the mud, really feeling the earth, shaping and moulding this piece of neglected land into something pretty – it’s difficult to put into words how humbling that is. And, naturally, this reminded me of a book. A book I read a while ago, but haven’t been in just the right mood to write about until now: Barbara Kingsolver’s Prodigal Summer.

One of my favourite books is The Poisonwood Bible, simply because of Kingsolver’s incredible writing and her ability to paint characters and situations that are deeply affecting, but never sentimental. I think a reader’s first encounter with an author’s work becomes the standard to which all subsequent novels are held, for better or worse, and this novel was no different for me. Prodigal Summer has that same lush, compelling prose, but it’s quite different in every other aspect and it did fall just a little short of dethroning its predecessor.  The story dragged a little here and there and sometimes I found it a bit too easy to put it down and carry on with my day. But I am nit-picking, in truth, because overall I really enjoyed this book.

Set in and around an Appalachian farming community, the plot follows three characters that could not appear any less connected at first glance, but whose lives become more and more intertwined as the story progresses. There is Deanna, who is living by herself in the woods. She has absconded from the rush of modern life and found her peace in solitude. That is, until a young hunter unexpectedly enters her secluded life. There are lessons to be learned for both of them. Then we meet Lusa, an etymologist at odds with her recently deceased husband’s family. Lusa was definitely my favourite character. I really related to her feeling of impostor syndrome, and I really rooted for her and was just as surprised as she was by the actions of people she never dared hope would support her. Lastly, there is Garnett. He is endearing and sweetly oblivious, and has been trying to revive the American chestnut tree for most of his life. He provides a bit of comic relief from the heavier thread that runs the length of the book. And then, the grandest character of all, and present on every page – the Appalachian countryside itself.

I am convinced that no one could ever write about nature and all its facets in the same sensual and reverential manner as Kingsolver does in this book. It is an absolute pleasure to immerse yourself into her rich descriptions of moths and coyotes and chestnuts and the people who adulate everything Nature creates. I felt as if I could just reach out to the page and lay my hand upon a moss covered tree trunk or bring my nose right down to the rain-drenched soil and take in its scent while reading this.

This is absolutely the perfect novel to read outside on a balmy afternoon, slouched in your favourite garden chair, with your toes wiggled in a patch of grass.


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