reviews

Book review: The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver

One of my favorite books/audiobooks of last year.

This struck me as historical fiction at its finest. I’ve never read this kind before, either, at least not at this level — the weaving of the fictional with the historical. I knew who Frida Kahlo was (my mom once gave me a Eugene newspaper article announcing a Frida Kahlo dress-up and lookalike contest, followed by a parade through the town), but knew nothing of Diego Rivera or Leon Trotsky. This was an incredible introduction — very sympathetic portrayals, yes, but fully developed and brought to life. Partway through the book, I did some googling — I’m fascinated by Frida Kahlo now, she’s just so intense-looking — and found not just pictures, but a video of these three historical figures together.

I can’t even describe how I felt, watching that. Just imagine you read a book and become intimately familiar with certain characters — and then you find there’s pictures and video footage of them online. Not just illustrations or actors, but them. The actual Harry Potter, Ron, and Hermione, for instance. I freaked out a little, I gotta tell you.

On another history note, I’ve never had a close look at the Red Scare before, and holy fuck, this was a traumatic introduction. At points I almost felt physically ill with disgust and fury. Also I didn’t know anything about the Bonus Army riots. Man, these were some ugly periods of American history. Also this book was a scathing denunciation of newspapers and journalism.

But it wasn’t just a fascinating, in-depth study of early 20th century American and Mexican history (and some ancient Mexican history, as well). It’s a book about a writer, a very good writer written by a brilliant one, and all the things that happen to him — all the efforts to stop him from writing over the course of his life, the experience of losing personal diaries and the manuscript of his first novel, to success and fame and the backlash — man, it punched so hard to be reading (listening to) it all as a writer myself.

A later segment of the story also illuminated to me one of my favorite story devices: the Unlikely but Badass Partnership. In this case, a young, queer, deeply lonely author with PTSD and severe social anxiety — and a prim, middle-aged widow who relies on formalities but is actually surprisingly open- and progressively-minded for her age and time. I just wanted all the stories about them, and I want to write so many stories about similarly surprising but well-matched partnerships (not at all romantic, mind you).

I cannot possibly give away the ending, but I will say it’s the best part in a book with a lot of good parts. Well, it started off a little slow, though I was never bored, just wondering what the plot would be. But the end was just perfection, which sounds hyperbolic, but that’s how it felt to me. It just tied up so neatly what a story is, with a certain trope flawlessly delivered, in my opinion. I was a mess at the end, in the best possible way, and I promptly put the first disc in again until I had to take it back to the library.

Oh, and on a last note: Barbara Kingsolver read the book herself, and fucking rocked it.  She didn’t try to do individual voices, but she can do accents like nobody’s business — and I guess choosing different inflections and accents amounted to voices, yes.  But yeah, she certainly has a talent.

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