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2009 Chunkster Historical Fiction Orange Prize

The Lacuna – Barbara Kingsolver

 Short listed for the Orange Prize 2010

I enjoyed The Poisonwood Bible so was hoping that I’d like The Lacuna too. I even saved it to be my last read from the Orange short list as a special treat to myself. Unfortunately my expectations were dashed as I really struggled to enjoy The Lacuna.

The Lacuna begins in Mexico in 1929 and covers an interesting period of history in both America and Mexico. The fictional characters are mixed with real people such as Lev Trotsky, so this book is a departure for Kingsolver in that it is her first work of historical fiction.

The book began slowly and I found I had to concentrate really hard just to understand what was happening. I quickly ensured that I only read the book in large chunks when I had nothing to distract me. Unfortunately this hard work didn’t pay off as I wasn’t rewarded by an entertaining story. I found the writing to be very passive and although some of the descriptions were interesting I was never drawn into their life. I was just a bored observer.

The market in Coyoacan is not like the Zocalo downtown, where everything comes ready-made. The girls in blue shawls sit on blankets with stacks of maize they just broke from the field an hour before. While waiting for people to come, they shell off the kernels. If more time passes they soak the corn in lime water, then grind it into wet nixtamal and pat it out. By day’s end all the corn is tortillas.

The characters were flat and I found it impossible to connect with any of them. There was just no emotion in the book – even scenes of horrific acts were observed in a pleasant way. I became increasingly frustrated by the light, monotonous tone and so considered giving up at several points. The length (nearly 700 pages) was the main reason I eventually gave up. It would have taken me a week of reading to complete this book and I didn’t want to dedicate such a large chunk of my reading time to a book that I wasn’t enjoying. I gave up after around 200 pages, but in many ways I wish I had done so much earlier.

Overall, this book was a big disappointment.

 (DNF)

The thoughts of a few other bloggers:

Throughout the story, important things were happening, but since I didn’t feel any connection to the main character, it became very hard for me to care. Fyrefly’s Book Blog

….the ending is amazing! A Book Sanctuary

At times Kingsolver seems to believe that she has to write for the lowest common denominator, a reader who knows nothing of history and has no chance of divining meaning. Book Gazing

66 replies on “The Lacuna – Barbara Kingsolver”

I, too, loved The Poisonwood Bible, but could never bring myself to read this one. EW, whom I generally trust, did not like it much and that, combined with the length of the book, convinced me to walk away. Thanks for the confirmation!

I’m about half-way through with this one now, and it’s a chore to read. I was about to abandon it, but I’ve put in so much time and it is on the shortlist. Thankfully, two friends whose literary tastes I trust told me the second half is great, and the last part is wonderful. I’m going to stick with it, but if it weren’t on the shortlist I would abandon it. I, too, have mostly been bored, and it’s such an interesting subject!

nomadreader, I have heard that the second half is much better, but I skim read a few sections and it still had that passive tone I hate. I’ll be interested to see what you make of it once you’ve made it to the end – good luck!

Oh dear, I really love Kingsolver. I’ve read such mixed reviews of this book. This is the first I realized it’s 700 pages, which means it probably won’t make my Orange July list — I’m don’t think I’m up for something that long!

Laura, I’m sorry to hear this has taken it off your Orange list – I would love to know your thoughts on it. Perhaps your Kingsolver love and tolerance for slow books would mean you’d enjoy this one?

I think for me, Kingsolver’s a one-shot wonder. I liked The Bean Trees and its sequel (I can’t think of the name now! Animal Dreams, or is that something different?), but not that much, and some of her others I’ve actively disliked. I’ve read mostly unfavorable reviews of The Lacuna so far, so I know you’re not the only one who had this reaction!

Jenny, It is good to know I’m not alone! I’ve only read The Poisonwood Bible, but have heard The Bean Trees is good too. I don’t think I’ll be in a rush to read any of her others.

I’m disappointed to see that you didn’t like this one. I’ve been hearing so many great things about it that I really expected you to love it. I suppose it is good when books break our expectations, but I prefer it to be in the other direction. I haven’t read this, and don’t own it. I want to read it at some point just because of all the buzz it’s been getting, but probably not right away.

Amy, I prefer it when my expectations are broken in the other direction too :-)

I haven’t heard much about this book recently – I think all the bloggers I follow aren’t managing to finish it!

Whoa….not good for me when you don’t like a book! I have this one which I keep moving down the stack as other books take a higher priority. Now I am not so excited to read it! But, I eventually will get to it and let you know what I think :)

I haven’t read any Kingsolver, but I’ve mostly heard this book was a huge disappointment, even people who have really enjoyed her books in the past. Normally this would be the kind of book I think I’d find pretty interesting, but based on all the less than glowing reviews I probably won’t read it. And of course I’m sad it somehow made the short list for the Orange Prize!

Steph, I’m sad it made the Orange short list. There were so many wonderful books on that long list :-(

I think that you’d like The Poisonwood Bible, so I recommend you pick it up at some point.

Oh! I’ve been leaving this one for a summer read in the expectation of loving it every bit as much as her other novels but the more I read people’s reactions the more I think I may be in for a disappointment. I will try it, I think, but with the caveat in mind that I may be forced to admit defeat.

Study Window, If you take this on holiday make sure that you take a few other books with you, as I’d hate you to end up without something to read ;-)

I very nearly bought this just t’other day in a buy one get one free offer. The main thing that appealed was that it is about the lives of real people, something I enjoy in fiction. Emm..but when I keep reading reviews that include the words ‘chore’ and ‘couldn’t finish’ perhaps I will save my money and give this one a miss.

Tracey, It looks as though you had a narrow escape from this one!! I prefer to spend my money on books that aren’t a chore too – it is a good job I got this one from the library!

If you weren’t enjoying it, then sometimes it’s in everyone’s best interest to close the book and pass it on to someone who will love it.

great, honest review.

I loved The Poisonwood Bible also. I’ve found that people either love that one or hate it. Maybe this one is the same? I’ve had it on my list but haven’t rushed out to read it because I’ve heard more negative than positive amongst the bloggers whose opinions I respect (like yours).

Kathleen, This book does seem to divide people, but along very different lines to The Poisonwood Bible. They are very different books, so I think people who loved the strong characterisation of TPB will be disappointed by The Lacuna. Someone who hated the graphic descriptions of TPB may well love the gentle nature of The Lacuna. It is strange that one author should change her audience so much with each book.

I’ve never been attracted to Kingsolver’s fiction, and it looks like this one would not be the place to start! Maybe I’ll just hang on to my love of Animal, Vegetable, Miracle and let that be enough. ;)

Hi Jackie,
This review had such a profound impact on me. I appreciate your honesty!
This book sits on my book pile now, I’m going to return it and not waste my time with it!
Thanks again Jackie.

I thought I was the only one less than thrilled with Barbara Kingsolver! While most drooled over The Poisonwood Bible, and what’s that Animal, Vegetable, Mineral one?, I’ve always been left cold by her writing. Needless to say, I’m not eager to pick up The Lacuna, but I am relieved that you found it disappointing. In that I’m not alone, and I value your opinion. ;)

p.s. I’m just thrilled you’re in for the Japanese Literature Challenge 4!!

Bellezza, I think there are quite a few people who don’t love Kingsolver, so you are not alone :-)

I’m writing my Japanese 4 post now. Hopefully I’ll get it up next week.

The Poisonwood Bible was a DNF for me, although I’ve saved the book all these years and mean to try again one of these days. Oddly enough, my non-fiction reading husband picked the darned thing up and loved it. Go figure. My mother-in-law had a copy of The Lacuna and I read the first chapter or so when I was visiting and enjoyed what little I read. Perhaps I’ll just be backwards and enjoy The Lacuna?

Michele, It is interesting that you say that. I think this book will appeal to fans of non fiction as there are a lot of interesting historical facts in it. I need an emotional connection to enjoy a book, but if you just want to learn a bit about an interesting period of history and are happy to read very slowly then you may love this one.

I couldn’t finish this one either Jackie. I completely loved The Poisonwood Bible and I am a huge fan of Frida Kahlo’s art and life so I thought this one would be right up my alley – but unfortunately it did nothing for me!

I really hoped you’d love this one. The book seemed so popular everywhere last year. But I have to say that lately I’ve heard more negative things about it. I’m really curious who you think will win the Orange prize this year. But I guess for that I’ll click over to your next post :)

I’m starting to think that Kingsolver may be an every-other-novel writer for me. I love some of her books, and hate others–she can get preachy. My trouble with The Lacuna is that I’d be reading it and there’d be a …lacuna…and I’d wake up…

It’s been interesting to read so many responses. I’ve been a Kingsolver fan for years, but it’s a love then lukewarm relationship. The Bean Trees and Pigs in Heaven were quirky and interesting similar to Tom Robbins, which appealed to me at that time in my life. I’ve also read Prodigal Summer (I didn’t find substance) and Animal Dreams was just ok. Poisonwood Bible was slow, but kept me page-to-page and a fan by the end. The Lacuna…. slow but with a finish that made me not mind a long, slow read. I liked the history lesson and was intriqued by the characters and the time periods. I’m always intrigued by Frida Kahlo’s life. I definitely had moments of “let’s just get on with it!” I don’t regret reading The Lacuna, but perhaps I’m just a dedicated Kingsolver reader or just have a tolerance for slow reads. I find that Ms. Kingsolver’s books often touch upon an awareness issue whether political, environmental or the human condition and there’s often a message of advocacy between the lines. For me, I expect the unexpected with her reads… some fall short and some hit you in the heart. The Lacuna hit me somewhere in between, but I liked it and would have given it more than one star. To each his own in the world of books. :)

Carla, I’m afraid that any book I don’t manage to complete automatically gets a 1 star rating. Had I been able to complete it then it would have got more. I have heard that the ending is really good, but I’m afraid that it just wasn’t entertaining me enough to justify the length of time it would have taken to reach the end.

It is really nice to hear the perspective of a Kingsolver fan. I may well try her earlier books at some point.

Sorry to hear you didn’t like this one. The topic sounded interesting to me and I’ve had it on my list of books to read. I will most likely read it still, but I’m not in a rush after some of the reviews I’ve read.

Well if YOU struggled with this one Jackie, then I don’t think there’s any hope for me! You do wonder whether the Orange Judges are just out to impress each other. Such a shame because The Poisonwood Bible was such a great read.

I wouldn’t bet on it….
Although I am still hanging on in there with Wolf Hall – I keep picturing you throwing it across the room. But I’m not “enjoying” it.Several people I know loved it.
But really interesting to read all these comments about The Lacuna. I don’t think I’ll bother with it. I might nip into a couple of bookshops though to ask how sales are going!

Ele, I love your review :-) I have heard that the ending is fantastic, but I don’t have much tolerance for this type of passive writing. The Lacuna does seem to divide people and I’m pleased that you managed to find a book that you love so much.

I had a very different reaction to this book – it was my first Kingsolver and I must admit that I loved it! I found the writing style allowed me to see other characters through a perspective that first person narration doesn’t usually allow for, and seemed to intensify the descriptive narrative for me. http://bit.ly/aE9wWO

But I guess that’s why there’s so many books – so we can all find the ones that suit our style! Good to discover your blog.

Liz, Thank you for commenting on my blog for the first time.

The Lacuna does seem to be dividing opinion. I guess that I generally prefer first person narratives as I like to feel what the character is feeling. This book left me feeling a bit distant from the action. I’m pleased that you loved it and hope that you enjoy the reast of her books too :-)

Gosh I am harsh sometimes – that comment sounds awful doesn’t it! Ah well we can’t always be nice and I mellowed out in my second post about it a bit.

If you were bothered by the light tone you probably did right to stop reading when you did, because there is a letter section that could almost be described as fluffy. And I get the observor bit, you’re never really asked to engage are you – like Kingsolver is telling you ‘Just listen, you don’t have anything to bring to this table’.

There are some good parts, but I’m still not sure this deserved to beat out ‘Wolf Hall’ or ‘Black Water Rising’. Ah well it has so I’ll oput all that away.

I found this site by trying to locate a quote from Lacuna that has stuck with me. I didn’t find it here, but I found the review and comments interesting. I’m one of the ones who really liked the book (and really liked Poisonwood Bible as well). One thing I’ve noticed with both books, is that she doesn’t seem concerned with keeping a particularly tight narrative where every word counts. No Hemingway, in other words. Instead, she takes her time in developing the story and indulges in what seems sometimes like unnecessary elaboration (I believe that happened in maybe the last third of Poisonwood and happens more frequently in Lacuna). That’s received quite well by someone like me, who’s just grateful there’s more to read by an obviously skilled writer, but it can be frustrating to some when the pacing suddenly shifts and momentum that had begun to accumulate suddenly begins to trickle away again.

And the ending for Lacuna was spectacular. The last paragraph took my breath away a little. There are some books that are genuinely a waste of time to finish reading, and then there are others that you may have to plod through for most of it, but by God are you glad you finished it–Middlemarch was like that for me. I imagine Lacuna may be like that for others.

In case you’re curious about the quote I was trying to locate, it’s in the context of the “un-american” witch hunt that went on in the US during the cold war. One of the characters says something like, “It’s as if they’ve said, ‘What you’re looking at [America] is a finished product; don’t touch it.'” Those who find her preachy will probably also find this preachy; I find it relevant and illuminating.

Jess, I’m sorry that I didn’t help you to find your quote, but you have made some very interesting points. I do prefer my books to have a tight narrative and while The Poisonwood Bible had enough momentum to keep me interested I’m afraid The Lacuna didn’t.

Everyone keeps telling me how good the ending Of The Lacuna is, but I’m afraid I’m going to have to take your word for it as I couldn’t force myself to read that many pages of a book that meanders so much. Perhaps one day I’ll have more patience with this type of book and discover why people love it so much :-)

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