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Bookmarks Issue: 
44-Jan-Feb-2010
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A-The LacunaA best-selling novelist, short story writer, and memoirist, Barbara Kingsolver is also a recipient of the 2000 National Humanities Medal. Her work includes The Poisonwood Bible (1998), The Prodigal Summer (2000), and Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life ( 4 of 5 Stars Sept/Oct 2007). We profiled Kingsolver and her work in our July/Aug 2009 issue.

The Story: Kingsolver uses newspaper clippings, journal entries, and memoir excerpts to tell the story of celebrated author Harrison Shepherd. In 1929, 13-year-old Harrison spends his days exploring the waters off the remote Mexican island Isla Pixol and learning to cook in the hacienda kitchen. Harrison's mother, a self-absorbed Mexican beauty, showers all her attention on her new lover while his American father remains behind in Washington, D.C. Harrison's skill in the kitchen eventually earns him a job in the household of famed muralist Diego Rivera and his vibrant, artistic wife Frida Kahlo. But it is Harrison's friendship with Kahlo and her guest, the revolutionary Leon Trotsky, that alters the course of Harrison's young life forever.
Harper. 507 pages. $26.99. ISBN: 9780060852573

NY Times Book Review 4.5 of 5 Stars
"The Lacuna can be enjoyed sheerly for the music of its passages on nature, archaeology, food and friendship; or for its portraits of real and invented people; or for its harmonious choir of voices." Liesl Schillinger

Denver Post 4 of 5 Stars
"The Lacuna ... is as rich and colorful as the Mexican landscapes in which it is largely set. It's clear that much research underlies this complex weaving--and could weight it down--but the work is lofted by lyric prose." Robin Vidimos

Times (UK) 4 of 5 Stars
"Kingsolver's portrayal of this period, and of Mexico in general is lush, tottering over with heady imagery. ... In a book riddled with elisions, the greatest lacuna is Harrison himself." Catherine Taylor

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"From beginning to end, though, this is also a novel of capital-L Liberal ideas--workers' rights, sexual equality, artistic freedom--the kind of progressive causes that Kingsolver tries to encourage with her Bellwether Prize for socially responsible fiction. ... Nevertheless, this rich novel is certainly bigger than its politics." Ron Charles

San Francisco Chronicle 4 of 5 Stars
"Barbara Kingsolver may now rank--for artistry, longevity and moral purposiveness--in the ‘above reproach' category of authors, gathering distinction with each new work. Her latest novel (her first in nine years) won›t disappoint that expectation." Joan Frank

Christian Science Monitor 3.5 of 5 Stars
"[A]mong the most compelling writing of Kingsolver's career. ... It's witty and intelligent but also a tad preachy." Yvonne Zipp

Los Angeles Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"This book grabs at the heartstrings, and you would give it to a 13-year-old without hesitation ... except for that nagging problem of historical truth. Even a card-carrying leftie (a literal term from the ‘40s, once applied to my father) cannot swallow the airbrushed portrait of Trotsky, in reality a boundless egotist and architect of ruthless collectivization, as a social-democratic Santa Claus." Kai Maristed

Kansas City Star 3.5 of 5 Stars
"The author stirs the real with the imagined to produce a breathtakingly ambitious book, bold and rich. If her dramatized history lesson feels at times forced, it also feels important." Jeffrey Ann Goudie

Entertainment Weekly 3 of 5 Stars
"Though the rich smells and sounds of 1930s Mexico seem to spill off the page, when Kingsolver moves Shepherd to the U.S., where he becomes a famous novelist, her plot grows muddy--and, worse, a bit predictable." Tina Jordan

Critical Summary

The Lacuna contains two very distinct parts. One features a vibrant Mexican landscape with the equally colorful personalities of Rivera, Kahlo, and Trotsky. The other centers more on Harrison's reclusive existence in small-town America and his battle with the House Un-American Activities Committee. Despite the prodigious research that both parts exhibit, critics clearly preferred the former, marveling at Kingsolver's lyrical passages and her expert recreation of 1930s Mexico. A few reviewers also noted instances of sermonizing and inaccurate history. However, the novel's compelling, engrossing story certainly outweighed these minor complaints, and in the end, Kingsolver has created a convincing "tableau vivant of epochs and people that time has transformed almost past recognition" (New York Times Book Review).