A read-along of Prodigal Summer, by Barbara Kingsolver (I)

One of the places I visited during my trip to Chiang Mai last year was a bookstore in the small town of Pai. Set in a wooden Thai house and filled with books to the brim, this particular bookstore was one of the highlights of my trip. While I was browsing through the books, old and new, my friend Kate brought over Prodigal Summer and said that since I liked The Poisonwood Bible so much, I should give this one a try.

A few months later I asked Vishy if he’d like to join me for a read-along of this book and he agreed, so we decided to do a blog post after the first 8 chapters, and continue with a new installment every weekend until we finish the book. There are some minor spoilers in the story but I’ll try not to give away too much.

Part 1, Chapters 1-8

The beginning of the story brought back to mind The Poisonwood Bible. If I’m not mistaken (unfortunately, I don’t have the book anymore), that book began with a description of a woman walking in a jungle – this one begins with a woman walking in a forest. Deanna, a forest ranger, and Eddie, occupation unknown (at least for now), meet for the first time under the canopy of trees. We learn quite a few things about her but he remains a mystery, coming and going on a whim.
Then there is Lusa, a city girl married to a country boy and living on a farm, reading whenever she gets the chance – mostly books about moths. The descriptive passages made me look up some of the names mentioned in the book – and what a surprise to see a picture of a Luna Moth, as beautiful and gracious as a ballet dancer during a performance!

Deanna didn’t expect she would fall in love with a stranger, not after choosing a solitary life, and certainly not this late in life. As for Lusa, giving up on her education and life in the city to become a farmer’s wife made her realize it’s not exactly what she had wanted to do with her life. That is until tragedy gave her a choice.

While the narrative goes back and forth between the stories of the two women, other characters emerge to add detail to their lives. Garnett Walker is one of them – a retired school teacher, living quietly (or so he hoped) on a farm, spending his days trying to make his dream come true: the restoration of the great American chestnut, a tree that will be resistant to the disease that had killed it in the first place, a tree that would bear his name. His neighbor, Nannie Rawley, is set as his antagonist. Described as an authoritative woman with a non-conformist background, she and Garnett see nature differently and fight amiably on this subject, most of the times through letters. These two characters are connected to Deanna and Lusa in different ways, and as the story progresses is feels like someone is constructing a carefully elaborated web, with almost invisible strands connecting the main protagonists.

Nature plays a big part in the book. References to wildlife – coyotes in particular – but also trees – the disappearance of the American chestnut due to blight, details about the life of moths, all this made it an important character in itself in the telling of the story. I liked the details that connected nature to humans: the Io moth’s wing color which Lusa thinks it reflects the yellow tinges in her hair, even her name, Lusa, which is very similar to the Luna Moth, Deanna’s long hair being compared to a silkworm cocoon, the dead trunk of a big chestnut tree which becomes a “womb”, a safe place for two people to share. The writing is descriptively poetic, rich in detail and color, and charged with eroticism. Sexual attraction, be it human or animal, runs like an undercurrent in the story:

“Lusa sat still and marveled: This is how moths speak to each other. They tell their love across the fields by scent. There is no mouth, the wrong words are impossible, either a mate is there or he’s not, and if so the pair will find each other in the dark.”

“His hands on her bare back, his mouth that drew her in like a nectar guide on a flower – these things of Cole’s she would never have again in her life.”

“In the last full hour of daylight, while lacewings sought solace for their brief lives in the forest’s bright upper air, and the husk of her empty nylon parka lay tangled with his in the mud, their two soft-skinned bodies completed their introductions on the floor of her porch. A breeze shook rain out of new leaves onto their hair, but in their pursuit of eternity they never noticed the chill.”

I look forward to reading the next part for this read-along. So far, my favorite character is Deanna – her solitary life, her love of animals, her past – and I am curious to know more about her and to see what decisions she will make later on in the book. There is, however, one thing that jarred my “reading senses”: her being referred to as a “girl”. I understand that she is tall, lean, has long legs and gorgeous hair, but given her age I think “woman” would have been more appropriate.
I was so impressed by the pictures I saw of the Luna Moth (thank you, Google!) that I decided to try and draw a picture of this beautiful creature. It is but a poor likeness but I felt that my review would not be complete without it. And to my pleasant surprise I also discovered a band called Luna Moth, whose music you can listen to by clicking on this link. Enjoy!

Until next weekend…

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5 Responses to A read-along of Prodigal Summer, by Barbara Kingsolver (I)

  1. Pingback: Readalong Part 1 – Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver « Vishy’s Blog

  2. Vishy says:

    Beautiful review, Delia! I love the picture of the bookstore in Chiang Mai that you visited – it is so beautiful! The picture of the Luna Moth that you have drawn is so beautiful and exquisite! Thanks for posting it! I always thought that moths were dull and drab creatures till I saw one open its wings and reveal its hidden beauty. I liked very much this sentence from your review – “as the story progresses is feels like someone is constructing a carefully elaborated web, with almost invisible strands connecting the main protagonists”. I can guess at some of those invisible strands, and I can’t wait to read more and find out about it. I also liked very much reading your thoughts on how nature and wildlife is a separate character in the story. The eroticism of Kingsolver’s prose was a big surprise to me. Deanna is my favourite character too, till now. I am also intrigued by Nannie Rawley and can’t wait to find out what she does next. It is interesting that there is a band called Luna Moth. I checked out the link you have given and their music looks interesting. Thanks for suggesting this readalong! I can’t wait to continue reading ‘Prodigal Summer’. Happy Reading!

  3. Delia says:

    Hi Vishy,

    I have yet to see a beautiful moth, the ones I’ve seen so far were dark colored and small, like an overweight butterfly. 🙂
    It seems like we both like Deanna best, she is an interesting character. I have a feeling I know how her love story is going to evolve…it’s hard not to skip ahead to the end of the book and see.
    Nannie seems like an annoying person – I can totally sympathize with Garnett, and that episode with the snapping turtle was quite funny.
    I’m glad you liked the drawing and I hope you’ll have time to listen to the whole album of Luna Moth.

    • Vishy says:

      I think the moth hides its beauty well, because it is a nocturnal insect 🙂 After I started observing it closely I discovered that the outside of the wings of a typical moth are dull and dark coloured but when it spreads its wings sometimes there is a riot of colour. I also can’t wait to find out how Deanna’s story is going to evolve – the last time I met her, she wasn’t too happy with the way things were, and she was sitting outside the dead trunk of the big chestnut tree, thinking. I listened to one song by Luna Moth and their music is quite interesting. Hoping to listen to more of their songs soon. Thanks for posting the link 🙂

      • Delia says:

        A mysterious creature, isn’t it? I wish I could see one…your description sounds amazing.
        As for Deanna, I don’t know what she wants – I think she doesn’t know herself, and I’m intrigued by Eddie, who is he?

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