The Lacuna: A Novel

by Barbara Kingsolver

Hardcover, 2010

Call number




Harper Perennial (2010), Edition: 1 Reprint, 544 pages


"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.

Media reviews

Kingsolver, at the top of her craft, builds pyramids of language and scenic highways through mountains of facts, while plotting a mostly tight course through the fictional premises that convey her writing’s social conscience. In this book, pacifism, social justice, and free expression are the standards she shoulders.
4 more
“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. But the fuller value of Kingsolver’s novel lies in its call to conscience and connection.
Barbara Kingsolver's new novel, "The Lacuna," is the most mature and ambitious one she's written during her celebrated 20-year career, but it's also her most demanding. Spanning three decades, the story comes to us as a collection of diary entries and memoir, punctuated by archivist's notes, newspaper articles, letters, book reviews and congressional transcripts involving some of the 20th century's most radical figures. The sweetness that leavened "The Bean Trees" and "Animal Dreams" has been burned away, and the lurid melodrama that enlivened "The Poisonwood Bible" has been replaced by the cool realism of a narrator who feels permanently alienated from the world.
A serious problem with The Lacuna is telegraphed in its striking title. "Lacuna" refers to a gap or something that's absent. The motif of the crucial missing piece runs throughout the novel, but the thing unintentionally missing here is an engaging main character. Our hero, Harrison Shepherd, is an accidental onlooker to history buffeted by other people's plans and passions.
Publishers Weekly
Narrated in the form of letters, diary entries and newspaper clippings, the novel takes a while to get going, but once it does, it achieves a rare dramatic power that reaches its emotional peak when Harrison wittily and eloquently defends himself before the House Un-American Activities Committee (on the panel is a young Dick Nixon). Employed by the American imagination, is how one character describes Harrison, a term that could apply equally to Kingsolver as she masterfully resurrects a dark period in American history with the assured hand of a true literary artist.

User reviews

LibraryThing member lauralkeet
The Lacuna is a brilliantly crafted novel, part historical fiction and part political statement. Its protagonist is Harrison Shepherd, an American-born author who spent his childhood in Mexico, and most of his adult life in the United States. As a young boy in Mexico, Harrison spent hours in the sea, exploring underwater wildlife and la lacuna: "Not a cave exactly but an opening, like a mouth, that swallows things. ... It goes into the belly of the world. (p. 35)" He later found work as a secretary and cook for the artists Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, and became acquainted with Leon Trotsky who lived with them during part of his exile.

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.
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LibraryThing member Carmenere
O.K. everyone, Roll Call: Rivera? Aqui. Kahlo? Si. Trotsky? Da. Nixon? Present. Mexico? Si, Si. Asheville, North Carolina? Here. Communism? Homosexuality? World War II? The Media? All present and accounted for.
It certainly is a crowded room but in the hands of a masterful author like Barbara Kingsolver all are expertly handled with equal importance, thoroughness and, in the case of The Lacuna, without boring her reader through a lengthy 507 pages.
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.
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LibraryThing member brenzi
Barbara Kingsolver has not published a novel in over nine years, but with her newest offering, The Lacuna, her fans will happily see that the wait was well worth it. She has written a cracker jack of a story, spanning the North American continent over thirty years, and covering American geography, politics and history in a way that only Kingsolver can. She adroitly exposes a time in our history of which no American can be proud, and looks provocatively at art and the artist from numerous angles.

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.
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LibraryThing member zibilee
The Lacuna is the story of the life of Harrison Shepard and, perhaps more importantly, the story of the lives that he touches as he winds his way along the dubious path of his life. Harrison was born to a Mexican mother and an American father and spent most of his childhood living in Mexico after his mother relocated to pursue other romantic interests. Growing up in Mexico, Harrison is left mainly to his own devices but he learns at an early age to love the Mexican half of his heritage and the land he calls home. When his mother's circumstances change, Harrison is sent back to America, ostensibly to live with his father, but he is quickly placed in a prestigious boarding school where he finishes the second half of his education. Returning to Mexico, Harrison finds himself working as a plaster mixer, cook and typist for the famous Diego Rivera and his volatile wife, the unflappable Frida Khalo. Frida and Diego are not only caught up in a life of art, they are also inextricably entwined in the communist cause, which Harrison also comes to be unwittingly involved in. When Leon Trotsky, fleeing a death sentence from Stalin, makes an appearance at the Rivera's secluded ranch, Harrison quickly becomes embroiled in a complicated web of the complicities of communism and admiration for the man and his assistants. After a terrible betrayal ends in murder and dissension, Harrison makes his final escape back to the States where he longs for a different kind of life. Reinventing himself as an author of wildly successful Mexican epics, Harrison believes that the drama of his past is behind him. But soon the House Un-American Activities Committee has its sights on him and it's all Harrison can do to bury the details of his past and get on with the business of leading a quiet life in small town America. In this epic journey through Mexico and America and back again, the life of an artist and sometimes conspirator is dissected and divulged, its small pieces becoming a dazzling whole.

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.
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LibraryThing member CarolynSchroeder
I too am a huge Kingsolver fan (loved Prodigal Summer and Poisonwood Bible especially) and expected so much from this one (love, love Frida Kahlo) and was disappointed. There is no doubt the writing is technically flawless, interesting at times, but boy, I had an enormously hard time caring about the protagonist, Harrison Shepherd, hence, anything he did, which is the whole book. I truly disliked the guy. A lot of his story felt contrived as a vehicle for the author to comment and preach (?) about some of the ills of American society (the hateful press, terrorism/hysteria and the age-old destroy that which is different and is feared). Even so, I don't mind political/social overtones/messages, most novels have them, but this one was rather all over the place, literally and figuratively. The symbolism of the lacuna, itself, is played out repeatedly throughout the book, to the point were it could have used some serious editing. In any event, I enjoyed the supporting cast, Violet Brown, Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera and the insight and tenderness towards Lev Trotsy. The painters have been certainly done before and there is nothing new about them, but if you like them and that era (as I do), you'll enjoy those parts. I also found the folklore and history of Mexico fascinating and well researched. Still, it never added up to a good, or rather, very enjoyable, reading experience. I had a bunch of people waiting to hear how Iiked this one, so was absolutely going to finish it, but there were times I found it hard to pick up, and even more difficult to complete. The first and last quarters or so drag so much and repeat themes over and over, so those parts were the worst to get through. Overall, I don't recommend this one, even if you are a Kingsolver fan.… (more)
LibraryThing member Cait86
"The most important part of a story is the piece of it you don't know"

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. Later, Shepard moves to the U.S., where he becomes a novelist, bringing to life the history of the Mexican people.

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.
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LibraryThing member mrstreme
In The Lacuna, Barbara Kingsolver assembles a moving story about a character who becomes a victim of his times. Harrison Shepherd could never find a place to call home. An American boy living in Mexico, Harrison survived through his ability to cook good Mexican food and gift for writing. His youth was spent among Communists – namely Mexican painters Diego Riviera and Frida Kahlo, and displaced Russian revolutionary Lev Trotsky. While politically ambiguous, Harrison was loyal to his employers – typing letters, mixing plaster and cooking dinners. After Trotsky’s murder, Harrison felt alienated by the country he called home and decided to head north to the country of his birth.

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.
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LibraryThing member bookworm12
Harrison Shepherd, half-Mexican and half-American, is raised in Mexico with his mother, later he returns to the USA to attend an American school. His divorced parents have left him feeling like he has no real home. He's an eternal outsider. He finally finds a home of sorts working in the kitchen of the famous married artists Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. The story is told through letters and Harrison's diary entries throughout his life.

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.
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LibraryThing member otterley
Really didn't enjoy this novel. For me the basic flaw was the central character. The boy and adolescent Harrison Shepherd is unlike any boy I've ever come across. And his writing is deeply implausible (who really diarises all of the most significant things going on in the world? Most of the time we are doing something else...) - not to mention the detailed remembrances of individual conversations and the letters that always seem to tell us something about significant events, never about the ordinary. Kingsolver deliberately makes the first person narrator slippery, ambiguous and unreliable - an observer rather than an actor. I feel that first person narrations work best when they are obsessively inward and very personal (Jane Eyre, Brideshead Revisited) - this uses the first person narrator as an observer of major events and larger than life characters. This subject matter would surely have worked better with a different narrative style allowing multiple points of view and different intepretations of a complex environment.

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?
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LibraryThing member MarciaDavis
Not since The Poisonwood Bible have I enjoyed a Kingsolver as much. I adore this author! The Lacuna accomplished what Poisonwood achieved, the complex interweiving of characters within a complex period of history. In this case, the time before, during, and after World War II.

She gifts us with the character of Harrison Shepherd. Born in the United States, reared in Mexico, his father is American, his mother (always the child), Mexican. We meet Mexican muralist Diego Rivera, artist Frida Kahlo, exiled political leader Lev Trotsky and an unlikely kindred soul, Mrs. Brown (his stenographer).

Beautiful written, Kingsolver has much to tell us about our history and we feel some shame in the telling.
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LibraryThing member BALE
I love Barbara Kingsolver. She is one of my favorite contemporary writers. Therefore, it pains me to say that this novel, out of all the work I have read of hers, engaged me the least. Because she is a wonderful writer, I know I expect a lot from her. In this novel, as all others, she proves her ability to write creatively, eloquently, and with her own personal style. However, I felt as if I was being "preached" to. Especially in the later third of her book. So much so, that I was not disappointed when the book ended. I was relieved.

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.

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LibraryThing member fyrefly98
"The most important thing about a person is always the thing you don't know." - p. 218

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 gold-digging mother, where he begins keeping a journal. After a brief stint in the United States for boarding school during the Depression, he returns to Mexico, where he becomes a cook in the house of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, famous artists and Socialists. After the Russian Revolution, Trotsky's exile brings him to Mexico, and to the house of the Riveras, where Harrison becomes his secretary. When Trotsky is murdered, Harrison flees to the U.S., which is caught in the grip of World War II. Harrison is able to channel his lifetime passion for writing into a successful career as an author - until the war is over, and the Anti-Communist fervor grips the country.

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.
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LibraryThing member flemmily
For a novel about a man who's reluctant to interact with the world, The Lacuna is surprisingly interesting.
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.
LibraryThing member maribs
I have not read all of Barbara Kingsolver's books but the ones I have read have all been amazing. The Lacuna is no exception. I enjoyed picking it up every night for my daily reading before bed these past couple weeks and it has been the perfect read for me here in Lajitas, TX down near Big Bend National Park. This was a book I enjoyed reading slowly, being sure to take it all in and not miss anything by trying to get it finished quickly.

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.
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LibraryThing member MarianV
[The Lacuna] by Barbara Kingsolver is a book I have looked forward to reading as I have enjoyed her other works, & it's been a while since her last novel. However, it was a struggle getting through the early part, although Ms. Kingsolver's prose is still outstanding. My problem was trying to identify with the main character, a young man who has a Mexican mother & an American father, who is left behind as mother & son run off to Mexico with Mother's new boyfriend. Later, the son, Harrison shepherd returns to the US to complete his schooling in a private military academy with unpleasant results.
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.
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LibraryThing member EpicTale
I greatly enjoyed "The Lacuna". With this book, Kingsolver demonstrates that she's a wonderful writer at the height of her literary craft. Realistically and sympathetically, she brings to life an interesting protagonist through a diverse mix of literary vehicles -- memoir, letters, newspaper clippings, imagined transcripts, and the third-party narrative of the protagonist's no-nonsense amanuensis. As with some other books which I recently have liked ("The Tiger's Wife", "Parrot and Olivier Go to America", and "As Meat Loves Salt" for example), Kingsolver successfully grafts her story and its fictional characters into an evocative historical setting. In addition, I loved the care with which Kingsolver allowed several of her characters -- in particular, Violet and Tom -- to speak in distinctive voices that helped to conjure the feel and parlance of the period in which the story was set. There is plenty in "The Lacuna" to savor, enjoy, and admire.… (more)
LibraryThing member Cecilturtle
I'm of two minds on this book: on the one hand, it is a fascinating topic populated with vibrant, colorful people in a troubling historical era; on the other hand, I had a really difficult time sifting through this book and reading it to the end. The effort is well-worthwhile, and the reader is well rewarded for her efforts, but I found that the chopped, sometimes very poetical, language obfuscated the plot, confused the intent and unnecessarily burdened the reader. I appreciated the author's willingness to make her prose colorful - the scenes in Mexico are particularly alive - but with the complex historical nature of the story, the disruption in style and content make this book a challenging read.… (more)
LibraryThing member porch_reader
Another amazing novel by Barbara Kingsolver. In [The Lacuna], she tells the story of Harrison Shepherd. When we meet him in 1929, Harrison and his mother have just left his father in the United States and are living in Isla Pixol, Mexico. Throughout his youth, he moves often, to Mexico City with his mother, to a boarding school in the United States, and then back to Mexico. Shepherd is often on the frontlines of history, spending time with the Bonus Army during the Great Depression in Washington, D.C., mixing plaster for Diego Rivera, befriending Rivera’s wife Frida Kahlo, and working as a secretary for Lev Trotsky. After tragedy hits Trotsky, Shepherd moves back the United States and realizes his dream of becoming a published author.

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 (, 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.
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LibraryThing member gooutsideandplay
This story has it all: politics, history, revolution, art, homosexuality, Mexico, the U.S. and many historical figures treated intelligently, and as far as I can check -- accurately. I don't usually like or trust fiction that mixes historical figures in (in this case Lev Trotsky, Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, to name the key ones) but with Barbara Kingsolver weaving fact and fiction together, all seems good. I've visited the Rivera murals in Mexico City and her descriptions accurately convey their incredible power. I simply loved this book and put everything else aside to finish it. My only criticism was that the part towards the end seems to go on forever -- but that was real and reflected the dreary anguish of the main character. The twist ending was satisfying and true. I would rank this right up with Poisonwood Bible.… (more)
LibraryThing member Warriapendibookclub
Barbara chose this book by accident, she had been to Adelaide & Darwin and found it in a book shop in Glen Elg. As she read it she knew it would be a good Book Club book. She liked the weaving of fiction with real people. Quite chilling in parts but it is a fantastic novel. More ambitious than her others.
Others: I've only read half but I'm enjoying it.
It is easy to pick up after reading something else.
I struggled and didn't enjoy it but finished it!
I loved The Poisonwood Bible and this one didn't work for me.
Hard to start with then got hooked.
Could connect with the artists having studied them.
Was bothered by the diary format.
Loved Violet she was really alive. The author has a social conscience.
Writing about Freida was brave.
Always like the weaving of fact and fiction but it didn't engage me.
Might not finish it.
Harrison's character well drawn & it developed beautifully.
Slow in parts, haven't finished it but I will.
Another view on history, loved it.
Haven't read anything else of B.K.'s but I will.

9, 5, 8, 5, 9, 6, 7.5, 8, 8, 7
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LibraryThing member DubaiReader
I would have enjoyed this if it had been half the length.

This book covered a vast swathe of history and politics and I'm sure I would have found it fascinating but it was so dragged out that I lost interest.

I quite enjoyed the first section, where Harrison Shepherd is a young boy, trying to keep busy as his mother conentrated on being desirable for Enrique, a Mexican land owner and wanna-be oil magnate. Born in the US, the young Harrison is shunted from pillar to post as his mother chases after progressively poorer, less desirable men. There seem to be only three things in his life that give him pleasure - swimming with a face mask, learning to cook with the servants and writing his diary.
Harrison then moves to a bording school back in US, under the negligent care of his father. At this stage we are introduced to the demonstrations by the returning American war heroes who had not been paid their war pensions and were camping rough in Washington D.C.
After school, Harrison returns to Mexico and finds himself a job in the household of artists Frida Kahlo and her husband, Diego Rivera. Lev Trotsky stays with the couple in Mexico, on the run from Stalin, and the atmosphere of high security and fear was well drawn but conversation and daily events were too extended and it was at this stage that the book began to really crawl for me.
It never really picked up as we returned with Harrison to the US and the claustrophobic McCarthy era of Communist bashing - Communists hidden in every cupboard, again far too drawn out for my taste.
During this stage Harrison returns briefly for a visit to Frida in Mexico, but this, frustratingly, is only referred to, not covered. I would have loved to have reunited with the enigmatic Frida.

Violet Brown, as narrator, was annoying in the beginning, until we evetually met her, and I found the way the book was structured, based on Harrison's diaries, a bit weak. Frida was my favourite character, though I would have liked more of Harrison's mother.

I made it to the end, two weeks after the book group I read it for - so 2 stars, but no, I didn't enjoy this one. Take away 300 pages and I think I might now be giving it 4*.
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LibraryThing member Kasthu
The Lacuna is an extremely difficult novel to explain. It covers a lot of territory, and a lot of topics. It’s difficult to know where to start. It’s a novel about a young man named Harrison Shepherd, a Mexican-American who grows up in Mexico and later lives in North Carolina. From the age of thirteen, when Harrison finds himself mixing plaster and cooking food for Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, up through his thirties, when he is a famous author and suspected Communist, this novel is, as the back of the book states, a coming of age story. But it’s much more than that as well.

As I’ve said, this is a tough novel to describe. In high school (about 10 years ago), I read everything Kingsolver had written up to that point, and I can say that this book is very much unlike any of her other novels, both in subject matter and style. But just the same, I loved this novel. Lacunae are voids, pieces that are missing; and it’s hard for me to grasp exactly what this means. It’s because of this that The Lacuna is a thought-provoking novel, one that had me thinking about it and its characters long after I’d put it down. It’s definitely bleak in parts, but Kingsolver’s writing is magical, contrasting the warmth of the Mexican climate with the coldness of the United States during the 1950s. There’s also, sort of, an anti-American bias in this book; the United States certainly doesn’t come across very well.

The characters are also amazing and well-drawn, though Shepherd seems to be more of an observer in this novel as opposed to an active participant (much, as he says early on, like viewing the world through a camera lens). But there are other, interesting characters in this book, including the prickly Frida Kahlo, with her morbid sense of humor; and Violet Brown, Shepherd’s middle-aged stenographer, with her archaic grammar. I though the newspaper clippings and reviews to be a little bit too much, but I really, really loved the rest of this novel.
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LibraryThing member michaelbartley
I really enjoyed this novel, especially the first part. Learned a lot about Frida and Diego. Actually Frida stole the book
LibraryThing member aylin1
I really liked the first part (roughly half) of this book about a boy (Harrison)who is being raised by a mother who eeks out an existence by sponging off the men she manages to ensnare. The setting is 1930's Mexico. Mexican artists Diego Rivera and his wife Frida Kahlo are an integral part of the story, as is Lev Trotsky (leader of the Bolshevik Revolution and Rivera's friend and houseguest).

The second half of the book completely switches gears. The setting is Asheville NC where Harrison is living the life of a semi-recluse and writing historical novels during the time of the Red Scare. The second half of the book was more of a lecture/essay in the thin guise of a novel. Lots of lecturing conversations and little if any subtlety. The brightest glimmer of light in the second half of the book was the no-nonsense, out- from- the- hollers Violet Brown, Harrison's secretary.

I'd give the first half of the book a 3.5 or 4 and the second half a 2 (loved Poisonwood Bible and Prodigal Summer so was disappointed).
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LibraryThing member JGoto
It’s been years since I read one of Barbara Kingsolver’s novels, so I had forgotten how her skillful use of language draws me right in from the first word. This was also the case with her latest book, The Lacuna. Unlike the griping story of The Poisonwood Bible, The Lacuna is one to read slowly, savoring each section. It is historical fiction, written for the most part in a series of journal entries, newspaper articles and letters. The journal writer is Harrison Shepard, half American, and half Mexican, who begins his story in Mexico in the 1930’s. An employee of artists Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, Shepard’s tale sheds light on the lives of the artists as well as on the life of Leon Trotsky, who spent his final years in Mexico after his exile from Stalinist Russia. Kingsolver has Shepard move back to the United States in the mid-forties and in subsequent years he becomes a victim of the purges of the Dies Commission and The House Un-American Activities Committee.

The letters and journal entries that comprise The Lacuna are thoughtful commentaries of the eras they portray. Not only does Kingsolver give a vivid rendering of famous figures of the time, she has Shepard reflect on the subtle changes in everyday life in the 1050’s.

“America has had a change of management. It’s plain as anything in the magazine advertisements. All the July issues came this week, and where are the square-shouldered gals pouring Ovaltine for their children, the mother who knows what’s best? Who smiles ruefully and shakes her finger at that husband who used the wrong hair tonic? She’s fired. They’ve got scientists in now, white laboratory coats and reports showing that the ordinary doesn’t measure up to our brand. Goodness, they can prove anything: skin softness, quicker relief. I miss the mothers. If you didn’t like the taste of Ovaltine, you might have wheedled. With these new authorities, you’ve got no chance.”

The Lacuna is a perceptive account of a tumultuous period of American history. It is told with sensitivity and wonderful prose. Once again, Barbara Kingsolver has created a book well worth reading.
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