Book Review: The Lacuna: A Novel by Barbara Kingsolver

Cover of "The Lacuna: A Novel"

Cover of The Lacuna: A Novel

I was finally able to read The Lacuna: A Novel by Barbara Kingsolver. This book has been on my list for over a year, but while running a book club at MAC Cosmetics, I forgot to put it on our “must read” list! Now that I am a lone reader with no club behind me, I had to pull from my own list. In high school I started a book club that I ran for all 4 years of schooling. During my junior year, we read The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver. Every year we chose a book that inspired us to take action and used it as inspiration to do social work. That year, The Poisonwood Bible inspired us to raise money for Oprah’s Angel Network. At the time, this book was an Oprah’s Book Club feature. We collected money from fellow students (it really didn’t amount to much) and sent it to the network along with how The Poisonwood Bible inspired us to do so. About 7 months later I received a letter and signed photo from Oprah! Thanks Oprah!

Back to the topic at hand, Kingsolver is an extremely talented writer, and I knew I had to try another book of hers. I saw The Lacuna on a bookshelf somewhere in the midst of my European backpacking trip and took note that it was a “must read.” The description on the back hints at a story involving imagery of what the United States and Mexico looked like between the 1920s and 1940s. It also hinted that the characters would somehow interact with Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. I haven’t read much about the two artists (or even seen one of the many Frida Kahlo bio-pics), but in my art studies, I have interacted with their work. This was enough to entice me.

Personally, I’ve always found historical-fiction to be a good read. I am not a big fan of non-fiction, but I love history. This genre combines historical research with an exciting backbone (not that history isn’t exciting but having “fiction” elements allows the author to create scenes that have a greater impact on the reader). Kingsolver pulls this off perfectly. The protagonist is a young man torn between two countries, the US and Mexico, who values privacy and observation over being noticed or even valued. His greatest talent is in his observances and how he is able to record them in his written word. Kingsolver writes the entire story in his writing style (with a few exceptions being newspaper clippings and letters in other characters’ hands). It was incredible to completely forget that Kingsolver even existed and to only imagine this character as the author of the book you picked up. And the fact that Kingsolver had to create an identity separate from her own writing style and still kick-butt in the created style was something else. If the story alone doesn’t entice you, read this book to see pure talent on every page.

But the story should entice you. It deals with the communist “scare,” Mexico’s nationalism and fight for “la revoluciĆ³n,” and how art appeared in the background of all of these events. Her use of Kahlo and Rivera as main characters in the protagonist’s life was fascinating. It gave me a glimpse of who they were that made me hungry for more…who knows, maybe I’ll even read a Frida Kahlo biography in the dreaded form of non-fiction for once!

Portrait of Diego Rivera and Malu Block and Fr...

Portrait of Diego Rivera and Malu Block and Frida Kahlo de Rivera (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The narrator, last name Shepherd (but known by a variety of nicknames he references throughout the story), grows up with a mother striving to be something great, and always falling short. Her idea of greatness revolves around the men in her life, and her son is just a tag-along in the hectic life she provides. By basically being unobserved by any parental figures, he learns about his environments from the other characters he interacts with. His story begins on a small Mexican island where he learns how to cook from the talented chef assigned to feed his “family.” This skill becomes his main source of income for much of his life and takes him from mixing Rivera’s plaster for murals (a talent he learned from creating homemade sweet buns) to becoming the main chef in the Diego/Kahlo household. His writing talent is often questioned as he is frequently seen writing his observances. Intermittently throughout the story he is forced to stop writing for whatever reason. It becomes clear that to Shepherd, life doesn’t exist for him without being able to write…and yet, he never complains.

I guess I could go on and on about how this book was impacting, but I don’t want to give away too much. I want YOU to read it!

Has anyone else read this wonderful book or other books by Kingsolver you would like to recommend?