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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon October 20, 2014
A review of The Lacuna, by Barbara Kingsolver

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

When years ago I read The Poisonwood Bible, I was flummoxed by its power and beauty. It was clear to me that Barbara Kingsolver possessed a fierce talent not just as a storyteller but also as a wordsmith and a reporter. Her vivid prose brought into high relief the tragic reality of life in the 1960s in what is today the Democratic Republic of Congo. Much later I read (and reviewed) Kingsolver’s recent novel, Flight Behavior, a meditation on the impact of climate change that underlies a tale of life and love in the author’s native Appalachia. Though less compelling than Poisonwood, Flight Behavior was brilliant in its own way.

All of which is why I was so taken aback when I had difficulty getting into The Lacuna, Kingsolver’s intensely political historical novel of the Mexican Revolution, the Depression in the US, and the anti-Communist frenzy following World War II. On my first try, I set the book aside, finding its open chapters confusing. Then I tried again, no doubt in a more receptive mood, and I fell in love with the work. I found I simply couldn’t resist the insight Kingsolver brings to her work. Here, for example, is a snippet of dialogue from the mouth of a minor character in the novel, commenting on the Red Scare:

“You force people to stop asking questions, and before you know it they have auctioned off the question mark, or sold it for scrap. No boldness. No good ideas for fixing what’s broken in the land. Because if you happen to mention it’s broken, you are automatically disqualified.”

By the way, how is that so different from the Know-Nothing attitudes holding sway today in the United States Congress?

The protagonist of The Lacuna is Harrison Shepherd, a writer of best-selling historical romance novels set in the empires of the Aztecs and the Maya. Born shortly after World War I, son of a minor American federal official and a desperate Mexican woman who sees him as a mealticket, Shepherd crosses borders to become a first-hand witness to the Bonus Army march and encampment in Washington under Herbert Hoover, the rise to fame of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, the assassination of Leon Trotsky, and the slow, painful unfolding of the Red Scare that seized hold of the United States in the early years of the Cold War.

The Lacuna is crammed with unforgettable portraits of historic figures. Chief among them are Diego Rivera and his on-again, off-again wife, Frida Kahlo, who fairly leap off the page with the passion that drove them to artistic heights. The dialogue between Kahlo and the protagonist, Harrison Shepherd, is among the most lively and engaging I’ve ever read anywhere (yes, even including Elmore Leonard). Kingsolver’s equally brilliant rendering of the artists’ houseguest, “Leon” (Lev Davidovich) Trotsky, is alone worth the price of this extraordinary book.

Better than anything else I’ve ever read, The Lacuna depicts the desperation of the Depression years, the topsy-turvy uncertainties of the Mexican Revolution, and the insanity of the anti-Communist witch-hunts of the late 1940s and 50s. That’s a lot to cram between the covers of a single novel.
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on January 7, 2014
“The Lacuna” follows the life of Harrison Shepherd, the son of a Mexican mother and American father as he tries to find his place in the world. Raised mostly in Mexico, his young friends there consider him a “gringo.” Sent to school in the states, American kids consider him Mexican. The book is a wonderful meditation on identity, nationality, sexuality and art through the story of a sensitive and observant young man who always finds himself in the middle. The story runs from 1929 to the 1950s and encompasses aspects of Mexican, American and international history.

Barbara Kingsolver expresses interesting cross-cultural perspectives through the many casual conversations between Harry and his mother and the artists Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, in whose home Harry finds work. His relationship with Frida is especially touching. Harry also works briefly for the Russian exile Leon Trotsky, who found shelter in the home of Kahlo and Rivera before being killed by Stalinist agents in 1940. Back in the US, Shepherd eventually becomes a bestselling author of historical novels about Mexico, but his promising career is compromised when Communist witch hunters learn of his past acquaintance with Trotsky.

I enjoyed this ambitious piece of historical fiction. My only reservation is that Harrison, although he’s the protagonist of the book, is outshined by the more bold and fascinating characters he interacts with. He’s an admirable and sensitive young man but he comes off as very passive. As the drama of his own life comes to a climax in the last quarter of the book, I felt sort of disengaged from him and wasn’t that affected by what happens to him. With that reservation, I think there’s still enough humor and drama and historical commentary in this book to recommend it.
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on August 12, 2013
Barbara Kingslover's ability to take the voices of witnesses to history is remarkable. In The Lacuna, she takes the voice of the assistant to a character, Harrison Shepherd, who is himself the assistant, typist, cook, and witness to some giants of the Twentieth century as well as observer and victim of the greatness and shallowness of key historic events and tide shifts in the nation's soul. She takes the historic and blends it with the everyday reality of living to tell the stories that were not told truthfully at the time such as the scourge of the anti-communism panic and American pogroms of the late 1940's and 50's. While the novel's central figure is fictitious, Manny other people present as well as periodical citations are directly from the actual publications such as Time and Life.

This NOVEL moved me as few ever do. The truth of the story and what can happen to good people who refuse to surrender their truth to the convenient or popular is one that all should learn again. 's. Kingslover's does not spare the popular press and media from her fact checking and truth telling. In this way she reminded me why published books including and especially fiction are so vital in this media dominated and plagued age of ours.
To miss reading this book would be a great loss to thoughtful readers.
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on May 7, 2017
In 1929, when Harrison William (Will) Shepherd was nine-years-old, his mother, Salomé, left her estranged husband, Will’s father, in Virginia, and moved to Isla Pixol, Mexico, with her lover, oil man, Enrique, hoping she’d be the bride of a wealthy man, with promises to her son he’d be a young ‘squire’ living in a hacienda, surrounded by pineapple fields. Enrique’s family were wealthy Catholics. Marriage was not in the offing with a married woman or divorcée.

Green-eyed, Mexican-born, self-centered, Salomé was a Criolla—pure Spanish descent, who endeavored to marry a wealthy man. She appeared to laud her disdain for working class and poor Mexicans who were mixed with Indian blood.

At thirteen, Will, Salomé’s tall, blue-eyed, half-American son, loved to explore the ocean floor. But he was not pleased with his position amongst the boys at the beach. Salomé appeared disinterested in Will’s angst, his feelings, and there being no school on the island for him to attend. In the interim, each week, Enrique gave Will four books to read from his locked library. When Salomé did show interest in Will’s education, she sent him to the School for Deaf-Mutes, Cretins, and Boys of Bad Behavior.

Salomé would eventually leave Enrique and attempt to extract money from one of his wealthier oil friends, who set her up in an apartment above a bakery, near Mexico City. When Will turned sixteen, she sent him to live in Washington, D.C. with his father, but only after being ‘chewed out’ by the school’s administrator in Mexico for placing her son in an inappropriate school. Will’s father placed him in Potomac Academy.

Will continued to journal his life, covering 1929 to 1951, but destroyed the year 1933. It was his last year at Potomac Academy. Years later, according to V.B., his typist, the missing year was called a lacuna—the hole in the story. Lacuna is an aptly named title for this enormous book, which I could not complete.

I enjoyed reading Barbara Kingsolver’s Poisonwood Bible, but this book did not hold my interest. I gave this book three stars.
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on May 8, 2017
I enjoyed reading The Lacuna, and kept thinking how timely this book is, despite being published in 2010. It is a beautiful, if sad story, covering a period of time and places I knew little about. Kingsolver writes beautifully. I noticed that some reviewers on Amazon disliked the second portion of the novel, while loving the first part. There are 2 distinct parts of this book, one darker than the other. But I think both parts are well-written, and fit together perfectly. And the book comes around in a perfect circle to a moving, beautiful ending. You cannot come to the ending, and have it mean anything without having moved through both the lively first and the darker second parts. And both parts of the book introduce us to entertaining characters, beautifully drawn, as usual with Kingsolver. I really recommend the book and think it is a book for our present moment, especially!

I don't want to issue spoilers, but think I can say without risking much that the main character is a gay man in the 1920's - 1950's, moving between Mexico (1st part of the book) and the U.S. (2nd part of the book). My argument for why it is so relevant right now is how the book shows the pressures and crusades against gays (and really anybody non-conforming) in the U.S. during much of this time period. Since there are currently so many hateful acts against gays, and apparently the climate has changed so our government may be seen by some as supporting such acts, it's worth being aware of history! I recommend this book, not just as history, or "mental vegetables," but because it is a beautiful story and fun to read.
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on June 6, 2017
I am a huge Barbara Kinsolving fan and The Lacuna reminded me why I love her writing. It's an intriguing story that resonates in today's political climate even though the story is placed in the 1940s and 50s. If you enjoy mixing a little history into your fiction through the appearance of notable people (Trotsky in this case), then you're bound to love this book. The paranoia of the McCarthy era becomes personalized as a writer's career is destroyed through the ineptitude of government agencies like the FBI trying to do the bidding of the infamous House UnAmerican Activities Committee. Since we have entered a new age of mindless political reactionaries in control of our nation, The Lacuna feels current and important. The main character's dual loyalties to the US and Mexico provide additional links to today's xenophobic political atmosphere.
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There are so many reasons to love The Lacuna:

The characters: the lovable protagonist, Harrison Shepherd, with his quick wit; his equally lovable assistant Mrs. Brown who he says is "sensible as pancake flour;" the colorful historical figures Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, and their equally colorful relationship with one another; the sympathetic Lev, and his secretary Van, and the tension their presence brings to the story and to my own now-updated understanding of the relationship among Stalin, Lenin, and Trotsky and the pre-McCarthy period in our country; and the true antagonists, Joseph Stalin and various members of the US Government who you can't help but hate, even if it does make you feel anti-American.

The language: a rich medley of voice, metaphor, and original structure that only the inimitable Ms. Kingsolver could create.

The story: an enduring tale of love and grief, of overcoming obstacles, and of survival.
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on March 23, 2013
I just finished this book, and I loved it. I am still reeling from its incredible force. Why, then, did I only give it four stars? As has been indicated by many other reviewers here, reading it - until our hero, Harrison Shephard, comes to Asheville about halfway in - was a terrible chore. I make it a point to finish every book I read, but in this case, it was tough. The writing style Ms. Kingsolver adopts throughout HWS's childhood and adolescence is almost unbearable. A story of journal entries, letters, and newspaper clippings, the former half of the book is told from the point of view of a young boy whose sense of self is so weak that he can't even acknowledge his existence in his own journal. For example, he might not say "I brought the cake to the table", but instead "The cake was placed on the table." This goes on for almost 300 pages. It's so clumsy and distracting. I kept getting lost and re-reading pages. I truly almost gave up on this one. But. Having powered through (to the other side of the Lacuna, as it were), I see now that it was, more or less, necessary. That said - so much of it? I don't particularly think so.

Now for the good stuff. The second half of the book is magical. Shephard comes into his own here, and he finds a confident (if not a little apologetic) voice in which to tell his tale. And then there's Mrs. Brown. Violet Brown may be one of my favorite literary characters of all time, and the dynamic that the two share is a thing to be treasured, right up to the last page. To the weary readers who, like me, want to put the book down and move on: wait until you meet Violet. That's when it gets so good.

It's a story about beauty and loneliness, in the landscape of political upheaval in Russia, World War II, and misguided patriotism in the United States. Even as a victim of fanatical Americanism, Mr. Shephard, up to a point, maintains a position of elevated tolerance of it all, which he occasionally seems to mistake for naivete. In this way, it's a timely story: a cautionary tale. Let's not allow fear for the safety of our country become a hindrance to common human decency. But it's not a political book, really; Shephard isn't a political character. Just a man with a heart-breakingly beautiful story to tell.
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on May 8, 2010
Just finished this book and did like the ending, but what a behemoth to plow through. In fairness I should say I read most of this book while working out on an elliptical machine at a fitness center and so was occasionally distracted, but part of the distraction problem is that the book often failed to hold my interest. Barbara Kingsolver often writes prose like a poet, but although some of the sentences are beautifully constructed, others are too stream of consciousness to hold my attention and it was hard to see the forest with such odd trees. Most of the writing is via Zelig-like Harrison Shepherd, her fictional narrator's journal, and because it reads like a diary, that's much of the problem. So we get a lot of mundane ramblings in Shepherd's mind that tend to jump around a lot and left this reader often wishing he'd just get to the point? There's a good 300 page book here trapped in the book's 507 pages. Because the book covers approximately 1929-1951 there's a lot to cover. Probably too much. Kingsolver seems to have decided since she's such a successful critically acclaimed writer she can get away with unconventional methodology, but it seems self-indulgent at times. Like there's this game she plays for about two hundred pages where the only time Shepherd uses the word "I" is in quoting dialog. Get it? It's a diary and the man is so outer-focused he never writes about himself. Except sometimes he refers to himself in the third person to keep pushing the gimmick further. Distracting. One other odd thing. Everyone else is three dimensional except Lev (Leon) Trotsky who comes off as the nicest guy ever. Maybe he was, although as a believer in perpetual revolution I find it hard to believe he'd be so darn personable, but it seemed odd when others around him, some also famous were more 3D. Also with all the celebrity Communists they never discuss politics at least around Shepherd much less with him. Even the great revolutionary Trotsky. I suppose this is so that Shepherd later can truthfully say he had nothing to do with Communism and he didn't but it seems shoehorned in there unnaturally.

Although Kingsolver has many political targets in this book, none so much as those in the news media. Seems to be a personal grudge of hers. On the bright side, it's fun to hang with Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, and their entourage. But then Mr. Shepherd spends most of the last 200 pages in Asheville, NC for no particular reason where he becomes an immediately famous and wildly successful writer - all the newspaper reviews tell us his books are just wonderful - here's where the real author could have given us a little dramatic tension and realism, particularly for those of us, like me, who are frustrated unpublished writers and know it never was this easy, particularly for an unknown, uneducated hermit, although it's much harder now. But no, he just walks into town and slays the critics with his talent. OK I know I liked the book better than I'm letting on, but it should have been better.
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on December 1, 2015
I don't know if I could have waded through the paper version of this excellent book, but as an audio book (beautifully performed by the author!) it was my perfect accompaniment on a cross-country trip. I think it is 16 disks, quite long. I learned a lot about the era in Mexico and the USA from the 19203 to 1950s, Frieda and Diego, and the House UnAmerican Committee. Unfortunately, so many of the same themes continue: the way the media MAKES STUFF UP and we soak it up and take it as truth. I believe Kingsolver is asking us to be FREE THINKERS.
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