I decided to read a genre book a day after my epic finish of David Copperfield on the road between X City and the bike trail. I won’t read any classics for a week, I thought. I’ll swear off Dickens. I’m going to read beach books like everybody else. But I keep sneaking in bits of Our Mutual Friend, which is so spellbinding I’ve decided it must count as a thriller-comedy.
But the discipline of beach books! We’re told to read them, and so we read them. Anyway, so long as I stuck to mysteries I was getting through one a day: no problem. Ngaio Marsh’s False Scent, one of her brilliant theater mysteries, was my second Marsh read of the week. Mysteries are the perfect length, 250 pages or so, and now I understand the charm of the fast detective story finish, the addiction of many friends and ex-office-mates. You leave work, stock up on mysteries at the library, flop down on the couch at home, and read your way through an Alleyn mystery or a Miss Marple or a Stephanie Plum in less than 24 hours. (Our Mutual Friend, which is certainly mysterious, takes considerably longer.) And then you go back to the library and check out a new bunch.
But I can’t read nothing but mysteries. I need variety. So I decided to return to Barbara Kingsolver’s The Lacuna, the Orange Prize-winning historical novel. It’s a genre book. How ironic that Kingsolver won the Orange Prize for a well-researched, wildly uneven genre book instead of one of her literary novels, The Poisonwood Bible or Prodigal Summer. She really won the Orange Prize for her past books–anyone can see that!
This has been the year of the well-researched historical novel: Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall with three wins and The Lacuna with one. First Mantel’s Wolf Hall beat Byatt’s masterpiece The Children’s Book for the Booker Prize, much to my amazement. I began Wolf Hall and didn’t even think it was well-written. Then Mantel’s book beat Jayne Anne Phillips’ exquisite novel, Lark & Termite, for the National Book Critics Circle Award (yes, I know. The set-up stinks. Somebody’s a little too impressed with research; a little too unimpressed with literary masterpieces). mantel’s book also won the Walter Scott Award. Thank God Kingsolver beat Mantel for the Orange Prize, because frankly it’s unfair to pretend only one good book had been published in one year.
So here are my thoughts on The Lacuna: sadly, it’s a very static novel. Told in the form of a diary by Harrison Shepherd, Kingsolver’s fictional half Mexican, half American writer, it never really takes off. Kingsolver sketches little vignettes in the diary, then never develops them into scenes. It is as if she is too awed by her historical characters, Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, and Leon Trotsky among them, to subordinate them to a plot. Through a series of coincidences, Harrison, once grown up, ends up in 1930s Mexico City, the cook for Frida and Diego. Kingsolver stunningly portrays the vibrant Frida as an honest, passionate, political artist who insists on throwing parties that are artistic events, stirs up the servants into turmoil as she demands impossibly perfect meals in a tiny kitchen, a woman in constant pain who is frequently hospitalized for kidney stones, back problems, and eye infections and whose paintings–one depicting a blood-covered murder victim–terrify and repulse the unwary, who assume Rivera’s murals are better. in his diary, Harrison writes about cooking for a party and describes Frida’s wit and sultry temperament–but then what happens at the party? Who knows? We are told Frida has political friends, but learn little about them, even when Trotsky moves in with them. Then the novel is all about bricking up windows and hiding him from the press. But there’s little drama.
So I’ve read 200 pages and, alas, though there’s some beautiful writing, I can’t keep reading these vignettes that lead nowhere. The Orange Prize folks must have decided the award MUST go to a historical novel. Well, ok. I haven’t read the others so I can’t judge. But I CAN judge Kingsolver, since I’ve read ALL of her other books. I’m happy she won the award–I hope her next book will be better.