Resurrected book review: The Bean Trees, by Barbara Kingsolver

From late 2013:


I finished The Bean Trees earlier this week.

I’d read it once before, in high school, when it struck me tremendously.  Those aspects resonated just as much this time, all the more because of my work on stories similar to this one.   It’s interesting, as I rediscover books I only read once years and years ago, how the plot can be fuzzy in my memory, but certain lines stand out in stark relief.  ”I found bruises, and worse” was one of those.  (Another was “I tried not to count whose pile of pine cones was bigger.”)

But oh man, yeah, this struck deep.  Turtle’s aunt literally just sat her in Taylor’s car, after all, despite Taylor’s (totally reasonable) protests.  (I kept wondering how the aunt chose Taylor, what made her decide to give Turtle to her — and I think it was how Taylor stood up to one of the assholes at the bar, shoving the ketchup bottle back at him.  Though her original criteria may have just been “the first single woman who comes along.”)  But the whole acquisition of a deeply traumatized (even catatonic, for a long time) child, the struggle to cope and adapt, the steps forward before you’re thrown way, way back.

And oh man, that scene after Turtle’s attacked in the park — when Taylor couldn’t go to her.  Fuck, that hurt.  I had just arrived somewhere on an errand, and I sat in the car, listening for maybe twenty minutes, even putting in another CD, waiting for some goddamn hurt/comfort, some breakdown where Taylor held Turtle, but we never got it.  No, Taylor put in extra-long hours at work while Lou Ann took a week off to be with Turtle, and the next scenes described were the ones with Turtle and Taylor at the social worker’s office. Yes, from the start of when Taylor arrived in Arizona with Turtle, I had been waiting for that “oh God what am I doing with this child, there has to be someone else who should have her” crisis, but this was really bad timing. Especially because it wasn’t just a crisis over Turtle — it was a much bigger “the world is a hopelessly shitty place, how can I look Turtle in the eye and tell her she’s safe now when it will all be a lie” crisis, which even if it was warranted, did fuck-all for Turtle.

At the same time, after listening to The LacunaThe Bean Trees struck me very much as a first novel (which it was).  Not to say it was bad — just not at full strength.  All the nuggets of talent and potential are there, though.  But I found some of Taylor’s, Lou Ann’s, and Mattie’s characterization and conversations…a little simplistic, too close to what you get in the cheaper “chick flick” books and movies.  But I kept reminding myself they (especially Mattie) were less of a cliche in the 1980s.

Don’t get me wrong, I love Taylor. Lou Ann drove me crazy for the first half, until it became clearer how deep her problems actually were — then I gave her more allowance for her self-abuse and compulsive worrying, if not downright paranoia.

I really, really loved Estevan and Esperanza.  (Estevan’s perfect English, slowly corrupted, his dishwasher job, and the line about the telephone wires were also very clear in my memory.)  Their story was so tragic and real.  I love especially Esteban’s…resignation, even, over Esperanza’s suicide attempt.  And I love how Taylor loved him — the first time she had ever been in love — but always held it back, never gave in, all the way through the end.

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