Summary and book reviews of The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver

The Lacuna

A Novel

By Barbara Kingsolver

The Lacuna
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  • Hardcover: Nov 2009,
    528 pages.
    Paperback: Aug 2010,
    544 pages.

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Book Reviewed by:
Judy Krueger

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About this Book

Book Summary

In her most accomplished novel, Barbara Kingsolver takes us on an epic journey from the Mexico City of artists Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo to the America of Pearl Harbor, FDR, and J. Edgar Hoover. The Lacuna is a poignant story of a man pulled between two nations as they invent their modern identities.

Born in the United States, reared in a series of provisional households in Mexico—from a coastal island jungle to 1930s Mexico City—Harrison Shepherd finds precarious shelter but no sense of home on his thrilling odyssey. Life is whatever he learns from housekeepers who put him to work in the kitchen, errands he runs in the streets, and one fateful day, by mixing plaster for famed Mexican muralist Diego Rivera. He discovers a passion for Aztec history and meets the exotic, imperious artist Frida Kahlo, who will become his lifelong friend. When he goes to work for Lev Trotsky, an exiled political leader fighting for his life, Shepherd inadvertently casts his lot with art and revolution, newspaper headlines and howling gossip, and a risk of terrible violence.

Meanwhile, to the north, the United States will soon be caught up in the internationalist goodwill of World War II. There in the land of his birth, Shepherd believes he might remake himself in America's hopeful image and claim a voice of his own. He finds support from an unlikely kindred soul, his stenographer, Mrs. Brown, who will be far more valuable to her employer than he could ever know. Through darkening years, political winds continue to toss him between north and south in a plot that turns many times on the unspeakable breach—the lacuna—between truth and public presumption.

With deeply compelling characters, a vivid sense of place, and a clear grasp of how history and public opinion can shape a life, Barbara Kingsolver has created an unforgettable portrait of the artist—and of art itself. The Lacuna is a rich and daring work of literature, establishing its author as one of the most provocative and important of her time.

Part I
Mexico, 1929 - 1931

Isla Pixol, Mexico, 1929
In the beginning were the howlers. They always commenced their bellowing in the first hour of dawn, just as the hem of the sky began to whiten. It would start with just one: his forced, rhythmic groaning, like a saw blade. That aroused others near him, nudging them to bawl along with his monstrous tune. Soon the maroon-throated howls would echo back from other trees, farther down the beach, until the whole jungle filled with roaring trees. As it was in the beginning, so it is every morning of the world.

The boy and his mother believed it was saucer-eyed devils screaming in those trees, fighting over the territorial right to consume human flesh. The first year after moving to Mexico to stay at Enrique’s house, they woke up terrified at every day’s dawn to the howling. Sometimes she ran down the tiled hallway to her son’s bedroom, appearing in the doorway with her hair loose, her feet like iced ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
Introduction

In this powerfully imagined, provocative novel, Barbara Kingsolver takes us on an epic journey from the Mexico of artists Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo to the America of Pearl Harbor, FDR, and J. Edgar Hoover. The Lacuna is the poignant story of a man pulled between two nations as well as an unforgettable portrait of the artist—and of art itself.

Questions for Discussion
  1. The word "lacuna" means many things: a missing piece of a manuscript, a gap in history or knowledge, a tunnel or passage leading from one place to another. What are some of the lacunae in this novel?
  2. Several characters repeat the phrase: "The most important part of a story is the piece of it you don't know." ...
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Reviews

BookBrowse

I have read every novel by Barbara Kingsolver and I love them all. Her writing is literary, lyrical and relevant - but that's not the reason for my deep affection. It's because she is a woman of heart and mind who is unafraid of using her mind to reveal her heart. [This] story moved me to laughter, outrage, anxiety, but mostly to tears. It is overall a very sad tale. When I closed the book, I simply could not move.   (Reviewed by Judy Krueger).

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Media Reviews
NPR - Maureen Corrigan

Harrison is so pallid, so retiring that it's very hard to stay for extended periods in his company, and seeing history unfold from his wan point of view isn't all that illuminating... To me, The Lacuna is an all too appropriate title for a novel that feels altogether vacant.

The Los Angeles Times

After some lyrical but unconvincing early scenes, the first half of the novel builds to page-turning tension... But there is no enigma. The good guys wear white hats, the villains black. This book grabs at the heartstrings, and you would give it to a 13-year-old without hesitation... except for that nagging problem of historical truth.

Kirkus Reviews

A richly satisfying portrait of Mexico gives way to a preachy, padded and predictable chronicle of Red Scare America.

Booklist

...the novel can be slow going, but the final section ... builds to a stunningly moving coda...

Publishers Weekly (Pick of the Week)

Starred Review. [Kingsolver] masterfully resurrects a dark period in American history with the assured hand of a true literary artist.

Library Journal

As in The Poisonwood Bible, Kingsolver perfects the use of multiple points of view ... This is her most ambitious, timely, and powerful novel yet. Well worth the wait.

The Independent (UK)

Every few years, you read a book that makes everything else in life seem unimportant. The Lacuna is the first book in a long time that made me swap my bike for public transport, just so I could keep reading.

Reader Reviews
Dorothy T.

Nothing is missing here
Barbara Kingsolver is an amazing author. If you liked "The Poisonwood Bible" you will also want to read this new novel. It reads so much like truth you might be tempted to look up the main character Harrison Shepherd on the internet. I ...   Read More

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Beyond the Book

Trotsky in Mexico
Kingsolver's fictional protagonist, Harrison Shepherd, spends much of his life brushing up against the lives of real people, including the Mexican artists Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera who played host to Leon Trotsky in the 1930s. Undoubtedly, you know of Trotsky, Bolshevik revolutionary and Marxist theorist, but did you know that he spent the last years of his life exiled in Mexico?

The story of his exile starts with the death of Vladimir Lenin in 1924. Although Lenin had appointed Joseph Stalin General Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party he had grown distrustful of him and had come to favor Trotsky as his successor, and had even written a letter ...

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