“Prodigal” is from the Latin prodigus – meaning “lavish.” Barbara Kingsolver’s novel Prodigal Summer is a lavish story. The characters, in their slightly over-the-top ways, are lavish. Even the cover design is lavish.
The novel cycles through three stories, all set in fictional Zebulon County, near the border of North Carolina and Tennessee. There’s the story of Deanna Wolfe and Eddie Bondo and their passion for each other–their relationship stressed by her resolve to save the coyotes and his quest to kill them. There’s the story of Lusa and Cole Widener–their relationship strained by opposite views of how to husband the land. And there’s the story of Garnett Walker and Nannie Rawley–he a conservative curmudgeon who would like to deny feelings, she a happy and generous soul who welcomes change.
Each of the three stories has a distinct narrative voice. For fun, I randomly opened the book to sample each one.
From Deanna’s story: She went to bed with Eddie Bondo all over her mind and got up with a government-issue pistol tucked in her belt.
From Lusa’s story: . . . when she married Cole and moved her life into this house, the inhalations of Zebulon Mountain touched her face all morning, and finally she understood. She learned to tell time with her skin, as morning turned to afternoon and the mountain’s breath began to bear gently on the back of her neck. By early evening it was insistent as a lover’s sigh, sweetened by the damp woods, cooling her nape and shoulders whenever she paused her work in the kitchen to lift her sweat-damp curls off her neck.
From Garnett’s story: In a springtime as rainy as this one, snapping turtles strayed from their home ponds into wet ditches, looking for new places to find their hideous mates and breed their hideous children. Of course there would be one waiting for him in that weedy ditch under all those briars – that swamp that had been created by Nannie Rawley – and if he happened to have a turtle on his foot now, it was entirely her fault.
Kingsolver creates discrete syntax, vocabulary, and tone for each of the three narrators so that their voices reveal their characters: Deanna’s voice is terse, literal, and solitary. Lusa’s emotional, romantic, and sensual. Garnett’s pessimistic and lonely.
The couples are contradictions, which Kingsolver connects with and instead of the customary but. Deanna wants to live alone with nature, and she’s sexually drawn to a coyote hunter. Lusa wants to cherish and preserve nature, and she’s sexually drawn to a conventional tobacco farmer. Garnett wants to be dismissive of all Nannie’s hippie ways, and he wants to slay her scarecrow to protect her.
The characters of Prodigal Summer will stay in my mind for a long time because they are lavishly made and lavishly thrown together. I find myself wondering how Deanna’s baby is being loved in Nannie’s patch of paradise, if Garnett has loosened up a little, where Lusa will get her next bright idea for making the Weidener farm profitable.
The last narrator in the novel is a coyote, meditating on the foolishness of people. Solitude is a human presumption. Every step is thunder to beetle life underfoot, a tug of impalpable thread on the web pulling mate to mate and predator to prey, a beginning or an end. Every choice is a world made new for the chosen.