Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver is the story of three individuals and their relationships over the course of one summer. Set in Appalachia, Kingsolver explores nature themes, such as apex predators, the importance of insects, and the impact of chemical spraying in farming, all while tracking the loves and losses of three people within the county of Zebulon.
From her outpost in an isolated mountain cabin, Deanna Wolfe, a reclusive wildlife biologist, watches a den of coyotes that have recently migrated into the region. She is caught off-guard by a young hunter who invades her most private spaces and confounds her self-assured, solitary life. On a farm several miles down the mountain, Lusa Maluf Landowski, a bookish city girl turned farmer’s wife, finds herself unexpectedly marooned in a strange place where she must declare or lose her attachment to the land that has become her own. And a few more miles down the road, a pair of elderly feuding neighbors tend their respective farms and wrangle about God, pesticides, and the possibilities of a future neither of them expected.
Over the course of one humid summer, these characters find their connections to one another and to the flora and fauna with whom they share a place.
I’m rather glad that I decided to listen to the audio-book for this story. It’s the kind of wandering, poetic prose story that makes for difficult reading for me. Not much happens in the way of plot here, and the book is over 400 pages! Rather, this story is a character-driven narrative that follows the lives of three people over the course of a summer.
I liked getting to know each individual character really well. My favorite of the three is Deanna, who lives in a cabin on Zebulon National Forest territory, working for the Forest service and trying to keep secret the location of a family of coyotes who have just moved into the park. Her plot line follows her fight to convince a wandering hunter why killing predators is detrimental to the ecosystem. I loved her long, thoughtful reflections on the way ecosystems are structured within the forest. I learned a lot that I wasn’t expecting while listening to this book.
I think I enjoyed most the environmental bend to this book. Many of the main characters are dealing with the environment in varied ways and Kingsolver injects a lot of science and environmentalism into this novel. It fits quite nicely with each main character’s story-line, from Deanna with the coyotes, Lusa with the insects, and Garnett with his neighbor being anti-pesticide. I also enjoyed how their stories tied together and intersected, unexpectedly. When you first start out reading this novel, you don’t realize how connected they are, aside from all living within Zebulon County, until the second half of the book.
I think that the switching narrative worked well for the story that Kingsolver has written, so I didn’t mind breaking from one thread of the story to pick up another thread somewhere else. But if you’re the kind of reader who doesn’t like switching perspectives, then this might bother you.
The last think I will say in this section is that I enjoyed how thoughtfully Kingsolver dealt with difficult issues, like death, cancer, and identity. I think each character was dealt with tenderly and realistically. It was really nice getting to know this area and its people so well over the course of the book.
Literary Value: 4/5
I hadn’t read any of Kingsolver’s other books before this one, but I know she’s a top-rated author and I can totally see why. Not only does she write really poignant, beautiful prose, but her character development is off the charts!
I mean, I felt like very single character in this book was believable. They each had their own distinctive voice, their own mannerisms, and their own way of thinking through things. I loved how each character’s narrative was really unique – I would never have a problem confusing them, since each one had aspects that made them stand apart from the rest.
I also loved how Kingsolver used her own scientific knowledge to inject the story with real, factual dialog and thoughts for her characters. Not only was I reading a book for the pleasure of a well spun story, I was also being taught really interesting, important things about the environment, about ecosystems, and animals. This added a layer of realism to the book that made me believe it, feel engrossed in it. I felt like I could travel to Zebulon County right now and find these people and these specific places if I went looking for them.
The only think I will say towards the critical is that I found the book to be a bit too slow paced for me. While I enjoyed listening to the audio, I know that there were times where I was ready for the story to conclude, because I felt like it was going on with no real end. The plot is so low-key that it’s difficult to see where these characters are headed. It’s very much a slice-of-life story, which can be just fine for me, but since this book is 400+ pages, I did find portions of it to be a bit tedious.
Entertainment Factor: 3/5
As someone who appreciates learning while reading, I enjoyed the factual aspects of this book. For me, though, the thing that I most enjoyed about reading this book was the character development. Each of the three main characters were so different and so distinct from each other, and over the course of the novel, I got to know them really well. I also liked all of them, so that was a huge plus in my enjoyment of the book.
I think that overall, I wouldn’t say that I was super engrossed in this book. I definitely could take long breaks away from it and not be itching to pick it back up. I chalk this up to the slowness of the plot, which also slowed my enjoyment of it! I did like the book as a whole, but it wasn’t one of those stories that really captured me and made me want to keep reading it. I definitely wanted to finish it, but I took my time doing so because there wasn’t a strong pull, otherwise.
Cover Art: 3/5
I think this cover could be better. I think it fits perfectly well with the story itself, since the whole book revolves around nature and trees and the environment. I love how green and lush it looks.
But at the end of the day, there isn’t much going on with it. I think if the text was a bit more artistic, it might up the ante. Maybe make the text more graphic? But otherwise, it is almost boring, which is a shame because I think the story itself isn’t boring! I think if there was a more dynamic nature scene going on on the cover, it might draw the eye more and better reflect the amount of environmentalism going on in the story.
Overall Rating: 3.5/5 Chestnut Trees
I think Kingsolver is a terrific writer and has a real knack for developing realistic, believable characters. This slice-of-life story is so well developed, I felt like I was reading a non-fiction novel! Her knowledge of enviromental and natural science shines through.
Despite the slow pace and the nearly plot-less ambling of the story, I enjoyed getting to know the characters and I felt invested in their lives. I think the best thing I can say about this story is that I learned so much while reading it and I liked all of the characters, which doesn’t happen often in the books I read!
I would definitely recommend this book, but really only to readers I know will enjoy a character-driven plot, slice-of-live type story, or readers who are big on realistic fiction and don’t mind narrative switches.
Thoughts & Thanks
Thank you so much for checking out my review. I really enjoyed this book and I’d love to hear your thoughts on it. Have you read it, too? Are you thinking of reading it? Let’s chat in the comments!
And, as always, happy reading!