"The story of Harrison William Shepherd, a man caught between two worlds -- Mexico and the United States in the 1930s, '40s, and '50s -- and whose search for identity takes readers to the heart of the twentieth century's most tumultuous events"--Provided by publisher.
The book is presented as a compilation of Shepherd's diaries, kept religiously almost since he could write. Shepherd's stenographer Violet Brown transcribed the diaries after his death. And in this labor of love the English definition of lacuna applies:
The notebook that burned, then. People who make a study of old documents have a name for this very kind of thing, a missing piece. A lacuna, it's called. The hole in the story, and this one is truly missing still ... (p. 112)
Shepherd became a famous author, writing adventure and romance novels set in Mexico. He was unmarried, and somewhat of a recluse, emotionally scarred by certain events in his life. In the late 1940s he found himself under FBI scrutiny, after they discovered his previous association with Trotsky. Kingsolver writes convincingly about the growing hysteria in the country during the time of the House Un-American Activities Committee:
"Whenever I hear this kind of thing," he said, "a person speaking about constitutional rights, free speech, and so forth, I think, 'How can he be such a sap? Now I can be sure that man is a Red.' A word to the wise, Mr. Shepherd. We just do not hear a real American speaking in that manner." (p. 443)
While the story dealt directly with McCarthyism, I don't think Kingsolver was only writing about that era, over half a century ago. The second half of The Lacuna reminded me of the years immediately following September 11, 2001: the prevailing American public opinion, and resulting public policy. This was a clever way for Kingsolver to express her own political views. And at the same time, she wrote a complex story with likable characters and a conclusion that tied a number of elements together in a most satisfying way.
It certainly is a crowded room but in the hands of a masterful author like Barbara
Kingsolver’s story begins in the year 1929 in Mexico. Salome Shepherd, a native Mexican living in Washington, D.C, has left her husband and followed her new love back to Mexico dragging her young son, Will, with her. Will feels invisible and ignored in Mexico until Leandro, the family cook, lends him a makeshift snorkel mask to explore a local lacuna, a cave-like “jungle-hole”, a cenote. He also passes the time, at his mother’s suggestion, writing down everything they’ve done while in Mexico. After a brief stay in Washington with his father, Will, now referred to as Harrison, returns to Mexico and becomes cook for two local artists. Harrison is a neutral party to all the goings on in the house and continues to work at whatever position requires his talents. The story becomes more complex when a new houseguest comes to stay with the artists and Harrison begins to act as his secretary and translator.
When circumstances undergo a change in Mexico, Shepherd returns to the United States and becomes an author. He writes what amounts to as historical fiction novels taking place in the home he knows best, Mexico. As a writer he has discovered that “a story needs a good collapse”
This is all I wish to share with you for, at this point, the story takes a drastic turn and everything from Harrison’s life revisits him and his hope for anonymity is crushed or what Harrison would call, “a good collapse”. Kingsolver touches on so many issues that one could discuss this novel for days. Her voice seems to come through the events once or twice making it seem rather preachy, in my opinion. Overall, it is not enough of a deterrent to stop me from giving The Lacuna a very favorable review.
Harrison Shepherd was born in the United States to an American father and a Mexican mother in 1916. His mother left his father and returned to Mexico when Harrison was only thirteen, accompanied by a wealthy Mexican businessman. With the promise of a wealthy husband never being realized and a mother who provides no stable home for him, Harrison found himself helping out at the house of a famous painter, Diego Rivera, where he forged a life-long friendship with Mrs. Rivera, the fiery and independent artisan, Frida Kahlo. At one point his mother sent him back to Washington to live with his father, who promptly enrolled him in a boarding school. He finally returned to the Rivera household where he worked full time helping the artist and performing secretarial duties and it is there that he meets and works for Leon Trotsky, exiled Russian political leader, whom Harrison greatly admires. It is this relationship that will prove to be problematic for Harrison later in the story.
The second half of the book tells about the time after Harrison left Mexico and lived in the U.S. and we meet the archivist who is telling the story, Harrison’s stenographer and good friend, Violet Brown (That name should not be lost on anyone after thinking about the famous painters featured in the book, known for their bold and colorful painting styles.). It is during this part of his life that Harrison realizes his dream of becoming a writer.
The author definitely has a way with words. Consider the following, that occurred when Harrison first meets Violet’s “unusual” relatives and is questioned, rapid fire:
“Many other questions stood in line after these, each patiently waiting its turn, each one finally spitting, rubbing its hands, and stepping up to position.” (Page 328)
But the language is not the star here; it is the story and the development of the main character, Harrison Shepherd, that steals the show. When Harrison tries to explain why he stayed in the U.S. and didn’t return to Mexico to live he responded this way:
“You asked me why I’ve stayed here so long. I can try to say. People have a lot of color and songs in Mexico, more art than they have hopes, it often seemed to me. Here, I found people bursting with hope but not many songs. They didn’t sing, they turned on the radio. They wanted stories, like anything. So I decided to try my hand at making art for the hopeful. Because I wasn’t any good at the other thing, manufacturing hopes for the artful. America was the most hopeful place I’d ever imagined.” (Page 489)
It’s very difficult to discuss this book without giving too much away. There is so much of a story to tell, considering all the history that took place during this time period, and it all touches Harrison in one way or another and provides the background for his story: the rise of Stalin during and following WWII, WWII itself, Pearl Harbor, J. Edgar Hoover, FDR and the Congressional Committee of Un-American Activities investigations.
Kingsolver has done a masterful job of presenting the story with her smooth writing style, and her use of multiple metaphors, the most important being the lacuna, the gap or place where something is missing. It turns up in so many places throughout the story starting in the Mexico of Harrison’s youth, when he’s diving in a little cove with cliffs behind it and discovers that when the tide is right it will spit him out of the cave and into the open sea but if the tide is low you could enter the cave and be unable to get out. You would drown. That opening comes and goes. The chance to live comes and goes. Some days it’s there and some days it’s missing. Absolutely wonderful read, thoughtful, sensitive and eloquently done. Very highly recommended.
I must say I've been excited about this book since first hearing about it and learning about all the accolades heaped upon it. My previous experience with Kingsolver's work was not very broad, being that I've only read one of her books. The book I read was The Poisonwood Bible, but the fact that I read it twice should say something about what I think of her work. When I was asked if I wanted the chance to review this book, I had to to a little dance of excitement because I had long wanted the chance to revel again in the kinds of worlds that Kinglsolver is known to create. And while there are parts of this book that were really beautiful, for the most part I didn't really feel like this book was a good fit for me, or really an accurate reflection of the type of books that I think make Kingsolver such a good author.
First of all, I found it difficult to connect with Harrison as a character. He seemed very insubstantial and almost completely absent emotionally as well as physically from the page. His physical attributes and mental states were never defined, and the longer I read about him, the more I felt I knew nothing about his character. Harrison exists only in the reflections of other people and much of this book is predicated on the fact that these reflections can piece together a portrait of the protagonist, which I feel was not very successful. It's hard to read such a lengthy book when you have no real idea of the motivations and behaviors of its main character. It's even harder, I think, to let the secondary characters in a work this expansive do the job of defining this character's subtle nuances. Though the story around Harrison was fast flowing and compelling, Harrison himself was just sort of a void to me. He never took on the life that the tale needed in order for me to find it successful.
I also felt that Kingsolver had overreached in her storytelling. The issues she tackles were rather serious but I think the book failed in its approach and construction. Maybe it's just that I'm not really interested in art, communism and the ways they intersect, but for me, most of the story moved very slowly and it was an effort not to skim. Kingsolver has a lot to say about communism, un-American activities, blacklisting and a whole host of other issues, but to me the way she said them felt almost as preachy as a five hundred page lecture. I am aware that these were dark times for America and its citizens and that there was a lot of drama made over nothing at all, but I really felt like a lot of this book was excessively pedantic. There were too many messages for me to be able to sit back and enjoy the ride, and though the book was indeed very complex, I felt like the whole house of cards balanced very precariously on Kingsolvers ideals.
I am also wary of books that weave in real historical characters, unless the book centers around these very well-known characters themselves. I think the success of books like this hinge on the fictional portrayal of real-life people, and in this case, I wasn't impressed with what I found. Most of the well-known people in this book felt like caricatures to me and were painted in broad strokes instead of the tiny defining ones that I had been hoping for. They seemed larger than life but did not bear close scrutiny. Another the reason that this bothered me so much is because the very nature of this book was to tell a personal story, but to me, the story felt anything but personal. Populated as it was by real-life figures, it became a sprawling historical novel. And knowing that my knowledge of these particular people and times was lacking, I just couldn't lose the feeling that this book may or may not be pulling the wool over my eyes in terms of its characters motivations and actions. I think this particular problem had more to do with me as a reader and my lack of information, but it was bothersome to me nevertheless.
There were moments in this book when Kingsolver turned a phrase or reflection that was effortlessly beautiful, and I found myself hoarding these moments and marking them in my book. After countless pages of things that were of lesser interest to me, all of a sudden, a passage would shine out like a beacon, drawing my admiration and awe in a way that captivated me. It is for these small reflections and really for the tight construction of the story as a whole that I have to admit that this book was not a total loss for me. I am fully prepared to admit that my intellectual inexperience may be the stumbling block that kept me from fully enjoying this story, but my reactions to it remain the same nonetheless.
I am not sure where next to go with Kingsolver. I think she's a brilliant storyteller but I also think her specialty lies in the smaller and less complex stories she tells. While I had a hard time with this book, I am glad to have experienced it and think that those readers who like highbrow and political fiction would probably have a very different reaction than I had. This is a big book with big ideas, but it was not what I had been expecting.
Plot Summary: The Lacuna is the story of Harrison Shepard, a Mexican-American author who spent his youth in Mexico working as a cook, plaster-mixer, secretary, and confidante for Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, and Leon Trotsky.
Review: This is a fabulous book. There is so much happening – it is part history, part political tract, part meditation on the importance of art, part love letter to Mexico, and all wonderful. Harrison Shepard is a man of many names: he is Will to his mother, Harry to his estranged father, Pancho Villa to the boys at his American boarding school, Sweet Buns to the plaster-mixers, and Insólito to Frida Kahlo. He is a man who does not recognize his own worth, who sees himself as an observer, the person behind the camera and never in the picture. In this way he comes to witness major historical events, and gain the trust of some very influential people.
My favourite sections of the novel were the parts set in Mexico. I love to travel, and Kingsolver's writing made me want to book a flight to Mexico City. She describes the food, the art, the physical setting, and the people in such rich detail that I could taste the tamales, see Rivera's murals, and hear the howling of the monkeys. Her attention to detail was perfect – intense, but never over-bearing.
Of course, as the quote at the top of this review implies, this is a book with lacunae, or holes. One of Shepard's journals is destroyed, and he only hints at the scandal it contains. The ending, too, is far from tight, which questions left unanswered. This is my favourite type of novel, where things are missing, and the reader needs to fill in the gaps herself. Kingsolver asks you to work a little for your reward, all the while sweeping you up in a plot full of interesting characters and events.
Unfortunately, Harrison’s time in the United States was equally disillusioning. Embracing the wartime hopefulness of Americans, he began a successful career as a novelist writing about ancient Mexico. Harrison had a few years of peace and happiness, until the U.S. government began investigating citizens for communist loyalty. Harrison’s time in Mexico made him an easy target, and he fell victim to McCarthyism – alienated once again from a country he tried to turn into home.
Lucky for Harrison, he had a loyal and intuitive stenographer, Violet Brown, who helped him navigate these murky waters. She typed his letters, fed his creative soul and counseled him on how to deal with the claims of anti-Americanism. She saw grace and talent in her employer, and Violet did everything she could to protect him (mostly from himself).
The Lacuna has troubling similarities to modern America. Kingsolver exposes the injustices and paranoia that can grip a nation. Her book could serve as a warning to people about what happens when fear overrules reason: Innocent people are tossed aside, personal justice is stepped on, and people become suspicious of their neighbors, co-workers and friends. For a person like Harrison Shepherd, it becomes a hole that one cannot emerge from.
Told with beautiful language and witty dialogue, The Lacuna is Kingsolver at her finest. This book is highly recommended to readers of “serious” fiction – who enjoy stories full of symbolism, foreshadowing and politcal thought.
The book feels like an entire series piled into one book. It's split into many parts, but they are so different it almost feels like reading multiple books. It has an epic feel, spanning multiple decades and cultures. It started slow, but it picked up speed as you became invested in the story. I loved learning more about Mexico's history and Lev Trotsky, but I didn't always love the fictional characters. I was annoyed by Harrison's mother and disliked the sections with her, but I was fascinated by Harrison's interactions with his artist employers. Frida's voice was by far my favorite part; her fiery nature spill passion and life into whomever she touches. I also loved hearing about Harrison's love of literature and his friendship with his stenographer Violet Brown.
Overall I'm glad I read it. I've never been a huge fan of most of Kingsolver's work, but I loved The Poisonwood Bible. My thoughts on this book fall somewhere in between my past experiences with her. I liked the book and enjoyed reading it, but I wouldn't read it again and it doesn't make me long for more from the author.
Summary: Harrison Shepard has never really fit in anywhere: born to a Mexican mother and an American father, he's never really had a country to call his own. He's dragged to Mexico by his capricious and
Review: Barbara Kingsolver is one of my favorite authors. I was so looking forward to her first new novel in nine years that I pre-ordered it, new, in hardcover (and those are three things I never, ever do.) I really, really wanted to love it as much as I loved Poisonwood Bible or Prodigal Summer. So please believe me that it is killing me to say this, but: I didn't particularly enjoy The Lacuna, and in fact had to struggle to even get through it.
Technically, and thematically, it is a lovely and well-executed book. It is very different in style (and subject) than any of Kingsolver's previous novels, but the language she uses is still carefully crafted and stunningly beautiful. Also, she deftly weaves her themes - of the role of the artist, and the relationship between the artist and the public; of the need for, and cost of, privacy; of the interplay between politics, journalism, and truth; of how well anyone can know someone else's life - throughout the book. There was a lot of potential for the metaphors that she carries along from the first page to become ponderous and over-done, but Kingsolver deftly avoids that trap as well. She writes about what it means to be American, what it means to belong, what it means to be home, as well as she ever has.
My problem was the story, and the characters - or, maybe more accurately, the lack thereof. Harrison is self-effacing to the extreme, and even when reading his journals, I found it really hard to get inside his head and really make an emotional connection with him. When the protagonist is such a cipher (and content to remain so), it becomes very difficult to maintain any involvement in the story. Harrison sort of Forrest-Gumps his way through Mexican and American history of the 1930s and 40s, always on the edge of important events, the perpetual observer, the eternal outsider. Throughout the story, important things were happening, but since I didn't feel any connection to the main character, it became very hard for me to care.
Technically, thematically, and literarily, this book was wonderful, but unfortunately, those by themselves are not things that make me eager to pick a book back up once I've set it down. A book can be intellectually fantastic, but if there's not some visceral or emotional pull to go along with it, it's going to be a struggle. 3 out of 5 stars.
Recommendation: I think this will probably work best for readers of literary fiction, or folks who aren't as reliant on character-driven narrative as I appear to be (or, alternately, for those who do like character-driven stuff but find Harrison to be more interesting than I did.) For Kingsolver fans, I'd recommend browsing a few chapters or borrowing it first to see how you get along before buying - it's different enough from her previous work that liking the one is no guarantee of liking the other.
I enjoy history. I love literature. So the two together are a wonderful blend. Kingsolver did her "homework", covering this period thoroughly, as it related to the needs of her story. However, every time I picked up the book, I felt as if she were "shouting" her point at me, repeatedly. I felt lectured to. I found myself wanting her to develop the story more, especially in the second half of the book. I wanted more thoughts from the protagonist (H. Shepherd), and felt this could have been done without compromising the second voice characterization of him.
Kingsolver clearly wanted to keep H. Shepherd distanced from her reader, despite the fact his information came, for the most part, directly read from his journals. We (the reader) were supposed to see his life from V. Brown's point-of-view, as if we, too, had just found and read his missing journal for the first time. He was a man that did not give himself away to anyone, ever. I got that. The problem was, maintaining a balance between a "removed" character and developing a character and story with substance. This is where the book fell apart. Instead of feeling moved, captivated and inspired by this great writer's work, I felt enough already, stop lecturing and get on with the story. In reading other LT reviews, I found, this too, was where other readers experienced a disconnect.
I gave this book 3 1/2 stars, and feel it could be 4. Despite all my complaining about the book, Kingsolver still proves herself to be among one of the great writers of our time. If expectations by her readers were any less, it is my hope, she would be disappointed. This is not a bad book by any means. It is simply not the best this author can do.
She gifts us with the
Beautiful written, Kingsolver has much to tell us about our history and we feel some shame in the telling.
The characters in the novel come across as cliches - Trotsky good and selfless, Frida Kahlo lives for her art and free love and passionately overcomes her disability; Diego Rivera looks like a frog - with no real spice, complexity or life to them. The same goes for events and even countries - McCarthyism is evil, the Mexicans fiery and passionate, the Jewish lawyer smart. Kingsolver never steers away from an obvious cliche when there's one to hand. The imagery and symbolism is laid on with a trowel - notably that of the lacuna - and there is very little subtlety anywhere. And it's so long - repetitive, clunky, unsubtle and - actually - very simplistic in its narrative structure, moving from beginning to end in a circle. I am finding it difficult to understand how this has been so acclaimed and garlanded with prizes - the Emperor's new clothes perhaps?
The Lacuna is a novel of collected journal entries and letters by Harrison Shepherd from the time he was a young teenager into adulthood. They recount his adventures through Mexico in the 30's and 40's and into his adult life in America. I felt like I was there experiencing his encounter with Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera and the life he led working for them in Mexico City. Harrison and everyone he meets throughout the book are so fleshed out and real that I kept forgetting that this was a novel and not a memoir.
Beautiful prose, epic storytelling, and intriguing characters. I couldn't ask for anything more. Loved it. It has become a new favorite.
I have heard people say that this book had a political agenda. I have to disagree. I believe that this novel, although centered around politics, is about humans, while politics never seem to be. This novel did not turn me into a socialist, a communist, an anti-communist, or a hater of capitalism, but it did make me want to embrace all kinds of people. It made me yearn to learn more about and to listen to people I don't know, and especially those that I think "I know about." Because I don't really. The best part about someone is that which you don't know. Thinking about that recurring message in the novel has impacted me. For reals.
This novel showed me about:
McCarthyism: how could we force people to value our government over theirs by silencing, condemning, and violating all of the personal freedoms that make our country so great?
The Bonus Army: How did I learn about this terrible event in high school (I had to have, right?) without remembering it? It's seared into my consciousness now...
Having your words used against you
Being a writer
Being a private person
Trotsky & Stalin
Stupid American slang from the 20's-50's.
Being gay when hardly anyone around you thinks that is okay
Censorship & other oppressive behavior
Artists, especially Frida & Diego
A lot of ancient Mexican history
My favorites (I'm being vague so as not to spoil the plot)
a) when a character protested a violating probe by invoking our personal rights guaranteed to Americans, and the agent responded with something to the effect of, "No American talks like that; that's how I know you're a communist." HA! I don't think this is true anymore, and I'm hoping that we'll be a little less inclined to McCarthyism-type witch hunting in the future.
b) The metaphorical images in the first chapter and what they came to symbolize
c) The strong women (Frida & VB)
e) The subtlety
f) The statement that a rule of the media is to fill the silence, keep talking, whether it's true or not. Sounds familiar.
g) Barbara Kingsolver's voices when she reads aloud.
h) The ending.
I have to thank my local library for pushing me to read this by selecting it for book club. I would have really missed out on some opportunity to grow as a person had I not dived into the lacuna.
As I get older, I become less and less inclined to read synopses on the jackets/back covers of books before I read the book itself, and all I really knew about this one was that it somehow involved the whole Kahlo-Rivera-Trotsky lusty and political menage a trois. As much as I love Kingsolver, I was holding my breath, crossing my fingers that wasn't too lofty a goal to pull off, even for her. I was able to let go...her portrayal seemed so effortless and...normal(?) to me. These are three distinct figures, no doubt about that, and BK makes sure the reader knows it, but at the same time she portrayed them in a way that I could easily separate my prior notions of them to their roles in this novel. Primarily because, really, it's all about Harrison. We learn about the world as he learns through the people he cherishes (which might be the whole world). By the second half of the book, those three are nearly forgotten (only that the tragedy has everything to do with his connection to them). This really was two books.
"'Soli, let me tell you. The most important thing about a person is always the thing you don't know.'"
Frida says this to Harrison midway through the novel, but it's been true since the beginning and remains true through the very end. Silence and hearsay--that's all there seems to be. It's the most confounding and comforting sentiment, roiling my brain for the past several days, for all the good and harm it does to the characters in this novel and the world in which we live. Where should trust be placed and what/who is worth believing? How can you tell? Shit. I don't know.
And why do humans feel compelled to continuously strive to find a source to direct their hatred? Fear, yes, I know...I feel so naive, but it's just so hard to wrap my head around it sometimes and it makes me nauseous. The HUAC hearings and the culture that it grew out of and that grew out of it have always pushed a button in me moreso than many other, more grievous crimes perpetrated in this world, and I'm not entirely sure why. This only makes me realize further that I live in a safe little bubble, or that even the safest of little bubbles can be burst.
I came to love Harrison like a brother or son. This was the strongest attachment I've felt to any one character I've read in a long time. I wanted to be his protectorate. His naivete sometimes got to be too infuriating (at first I wondered if this was a flaw in the writing, but then I forgot to remember that this was just a story). And there was just no good answer to his isolation. The way he found such courage in Lev's struggle, but could hardly deal when he was vilified himself. He was just one of those people...you know how you might be living your life with maybe not everything, but enough, and things are OK for you, but there's someone--a friend, a family member, could even be someone you know that you're not even necessarily close to--but in your gut you can feel them to be really GOOD people and you just want something GOOD to work out for them at least once in their life? That's how I feel about Harrison. I hope he was able to find it.
My head is pounding, and I've got to dream about what I can read next. Until next time, amen.
The Lacuna is a fictional biography / memoir of Harrison Shepherd, a man who falls between the gaps in his dual Mexican-American heritage. While born in the United States to an American father, has is taken to Mexico by his Mexican mother to be raised there. A lot of essential background is laid down here, but it is not the most exciting reading.
For me, the story started getting interesting when Shepherd cross paths with Frida Khalo and her husband, Diego Rivera. This friendship becomes the focus for the latter portion of the novel’s direction. Again, gaps become important and what happens when other people fill in the blanks.
This last plays against the backdrop of a modern black spot in American history: The Great Communist Hunt. Gaps are filled in with either fabricated information or misinterpreted information and Shepherd is wrongly brought down. This account and the account of the massacre on the National Mall in Washington were some of the most moving portions of the story.
I could see the setup for the ending of the story coming, so it was not too much of a surprise. Because of this and the slow start to the story, I almost gave up on it, I can’t say this was truly an outstanding book. I will go to four and half stars with though, because once the story starts unfolding, it really carried me along.
Since Harrison Shepherd never existed, this can’t be a biography. There is enough examination of history and representation of historical characters that I’d put this firmly in the Historical Fiction field. The historical characters are huge enough that they should draw a large following to this book.
The book was at its best while it was in Mexico, as it provided insights or spurs to further reading on Mexico’s revolution over 1910-20, and the brutality of the Spanish conquest of the Aztecs, draining the lake surrounding their capital, Tenochtitlan (now Mexico City), and burning alive those who resisted, like Qualpopoca. An extensive part of it deals with Rivera, Kahlo, and Trotsky – their political and philosophical beliefs, their art and writings, and their personal lives – and all of this worked for me.
It also scores points with its description of the American government’s shameful treatment of the Bonus Army in 1932 (including the roles future WWII heroes Patton and MacArthur played), and the rationale behind America’s actions towards Trotsky, that with Hitler on the rise, Britain and America needed Russia on their side, so they couldn’t let Trotsky be right about Stalin being a monster, because they would “need that monster.”
The book is clearly a vehicle to examine history, something I liked about it, but which other readers may be less enamored with. Kingsolver does well when she extracts articles verbatim from The New York Times which are brilliant in speaking truth to the era, but she sometimes rather awkwardly forces dialogue into her characters’ mouths to try to get her points across. I have to also say, after p. 341 (of 670), when the action shifts to North Carolina in the 1940’s, the book was a little less interesting to me. The story line of the young man breaking through as an author, the many reviews Kingsolver imagines as reactions to his work, and his suspicion of being a communist was not strong enough to sustain the amount of material devoted to it.
With that said, she illustrates the supreme hypocrisy of those who were ostensibly against the suppression of freedom who turned around and suppressed free speech, and abused their power in ways that echoed authoritarian countries, things that are still highly relevant today.
There were also bits in this second half of the book that were informative, like the artistic treasures of the National Gallery being transported to the Biltmore House for safekeeping, the 39%(!) of those drafted for the war who failed the physical examination and deemed unfit to serve, and the generally progressive Senator from California, Hiram Johnson, who was an isolationist, playing a key role in prohibiting Japanese immigration, and advocating for Japanese American internment, aided by the frenzied, hyperbolic reporting in William Randolph Hearst’s newspapers. I was also unaware that the original target for the second atomic bomb as Kokura, and that the plan changed mid-flight to Nagasaki because of the weather, or that Truman had unfortunately quipped “If that’s art, I’m a Hottentot” in 1947 in reaction to a Look Magazine article titled ‘Your Money Bought These Pictures.”
All these little factoids, coupled with the Kingsolver’s clear-eyed view of history, are what I liked best about this book. The story constructed around them was not as strong and lagged in the second half. If you’re interested in the historical topics, or the art of Rivera and Kahlo, this may be a good read for you.
On America, and its blithe way of ignoring its problematic history or the need to make progress in the present; this was brilliant:
“It’s what these guys have decided to call America. They have the audacity to say, ‘There, you sons of bitches, don’t lay a finger on it. That is a finished product.”
On lies and propaganda in the news:
“Lies are infinite in number, and the truth so small and singular.”
“How will their tongue survive in a modern world, where the talkers rush to trample every pause?”
On memories, and parting:
“Praise all but the vanishing point where we stand now, not quite parted. Already memories fall like blows. But soon they will be treasure, dropped like gold through a miser’s fingers as he makes his accounts: the years at a desk, elbow to your elbow. … Praise each insomniac hour, kept wide awake by your glow. Sleep would only have robbed more coins from this vandal hoarded store.”
“The white cuffs soaked like bandages, drops of blood falling on white paper, these images have receded, mostly gone. But then one appears, startling as a stranger standing in the corner of a room where you’d thought yourself alone.”
On the moon’s phases:
“This evening the moon was half, and Leandro said it’s dying away. You can tell because it’s shaped like the letter C, not curved forward like D. He says when the moon is D like Dios, it is growing to fill God’s sky. When dying away it is C, like Cristo on the cross.”
On writing, and readers:
“I should like to write my books only for the dear person who lies awake reading in bed until page last, then lets the open book fall gently on her face, to touch her smile or drink her tears.”
Lastly, the funny lines from a friend:
“What’s steamin’, demon?”
“Plant you now, dig you later.”
“Thanks for the buzz. Cat, you know how to percolate.”
“That’s the story, morning glory.”
“The hell you yell, Asheville has instant coffee now?”
The book is a mix of fiction and history. It is of course based on actual events, and I was often left wondering how much was fact. The author tries to set this up in the beginning a bit, but not clearly enough for me. I am now left needing to read the source books she cites, but I am sure that I will find those quite enjoyable.
I was a little bit wary that I would find the second half of the book less engaging that the portion based in Mexico. In The Poisonwood Bible, I so much more enjoyed the part of the book about the children growing up in the jungle than I did the end part when they were adults. But, that did not occur this time. Harrison's experiences as an author and as a target of the McCarthyites held my interest completely.
The story picks up when Harrison joins the household of Diego Rivera and Frido Kahlo. He stars as a plaster mixer, graduates to a cook & office assistant. Of all the characters in the novel, Frida Kahlo is the best drawn & the one I could most identify with. I wish we could have seen more of her, but she was not the main part of the story. The other women portrayed seemed dull compared to her.
After the story shifted from Mexico to the US, for me, at least, it lost much of its interest. It became an ordinary tale of young man with talent runs afoul of nasty government and a predictable outcome. It might be because I gre up in the 40's & 50's & remember many of the scenerios, which at the time did not hold my interest & reading about them again still failed to hold it. For someone not acquainted with those times, however, the story might hold more interest.
As for the characters, I was not all that interested in Harrison Shepherd & the scenes in North Carolina. Others have noted this problem & I don't know if Ms. Kingsolver put too much emphasis on getting her message across (and yes, she does make it obvious that she has a "message") but none of the character (with the exception of Ms. Kahlo) were drawn as carefully as those in her previous
novels. Also, she makes the character of Lev Trotsky, the rival of Joseph Stalin who took refuge with Diego River in Mexico when Stalin Seized power in Russia seem like someones kindly old grandfather. He was a grandfather, but hard to believe he was the sweet old-timer who loved birds & flowers (& not waging revolutions)
To all fans of Barbara Kingsolver, yes, her descriptions are up to her usual standard, but for another page-turner of a novel - well, maybe next time.
There is so much that I liked about this book – it is hard to know where to begin. First, Harrison Shepherd is an interesting main character. Although the story is mainly told from his point of view, I felt as though I got to know him very slowly. His focus is more on the people around him than it is on his own story. He leads his life in the shadow of others and even as he becomes a published author, he shrinks from being the focus of attention. Yet, through his writings and his relationships, we gradually come to know him well. We also get an incredibly vivid picture of the other people in his life. I was especially fascinated by his stenographer, Violet Brown.
Second, the book is written in a variety of formats – letters, journals, memoir, news clippings, and notes from an archivist who put the pieces of the story together. This change of format is an integral part of the story, and Kingsolver does an excellent job in varying her style to match the format. For example, the journals from Shepherd’s adult years are written in a much different voice from those of his youth.
And the story itself is well crafted. Kingsolver seamlessly weaves in current events with Harrison’s own story. Suspense mounts as Harrison deals with the challenges that face him. Kingsolver masterfully controls the pace and even the book’s ending doesn’t resolve all of the suspense. This is only one part of the significance of the book’s title. Lacuna is defined as a gap or missing part (dictionary.com), and in the way that she shares Shepherd’s story, Kingsolver constantly challenges her readers to fill in the gaps.
Kingsolver is one of my favorite authors, but this book is different from her others. It is a both a sweeping saga and an intimate portrait. It is less hopeful than her earlier work (like [The Bean Trees]). But through Shepherd, Kingsolver speaks with a voice that is honest and mature and captivating. I hope that this book, her first work of fiction in nine years, is followed by many more.
I found the convention of journals and letters a little intrusive to the story.
However, Kingsolver's insights into what drives humans are, as always, deeply touching.