On Solid Ground 

Barbara Kingsolver and Jane Hamilton deliver new novels, no surprises

Just in time for the holiday buying/giving season come new books from two novelists whose fans constantly lie in wait for a new release. And though neither of these novels qualifies as among the best of either author's generous output, each is interesting enough to merit recommendation.

Barbara Kingsolver shifts her focus from the desert Southwest (and most recently, Africa) to southern Appalachia, the fictional county of Zebulon which I imagine lying somewhere along the lush Kentucky-Virginia border. This is Kingsolver's childhood stomping ground, the land that originally sparked the author's interest in biology and botany, and the land of her ancestors. Her affection for the place is apparent in every sentence of the book, from scientifically detailed expository passages on the terrain and wildlife to rhapsodic descriptions of the sights, sounds and smells of that rural, heavily wooded region.

Prodigal Summer alternates among three barely interconnected story lines, each featuring a character or set of characters who are motivated by their connection to the land. The chapters titled "Predators" tell the story of Deanna Wolfe, a wildlife biologist who works for the forest service and lives a secluded life in a remote cabin high up on a mountainside. Wolfe has just begun to track a family of coyotes that have recently migrated into the region when Eddie Bondo, a young hunter who hails from the West, stumbles across her and quickly becomes her lover. Much is made of animal attraction and mating habits in the "Predators" story, and sex hangs in the air as heavy as a late summer afternoon thunderstorm. Eventually, we come to understand that Deanna cannot live a completely solitary life any more than the coyote can be denied its place in the natural world.

The chapters titled "Moth Love" focus on Lusa Maluf Landowski, a city girl from Lexington who has married a Zebulon County farmer, Cole Widener, only to be suddenly widowed and left to figure out what to do with the land she has inherited. An educated outsider, Lusa learns how to get off her high horse by eventually working her way into Cole's extended family, establishing a bond with Jewel, his sister, a single mom dying of cancer. A biologist by training, Lusa's specialty is moths, and in these chapters we learn much about the tenacious habits of these ephemeral creatures as well as the staying power of even the most strained bonds of family.

"Old Chestnuts," the third alternating story line features Garnett Walker and Nannie Rawley, two elderly feuding neighbors who strongly disagree on how to farm. Nannie runs a successful organic apple orchard and shuns all use of pesticides while Garnett frets over the burgeoning weeds that proliferate along the bounds of their properties. Before he dies, Garnett is determined to re-establish the American chestnut tree, killed off by a blight early in the century, in the forests of Zebulon County, and the story shows him secretly, determinedly nursing hybrid seedlings, striving to find a strain that will survive. As Nannie and Garnett learn more about each other, they are eventually drawn together by mutual respect and a faint but dogged sexual attraction.

Kingsolver's books are always didactic in conception and execution, this one more stridently so than her Southwest series (The Bean Trees, Pigs in Heaven, Animal Dreams), and that "teachy" quality will put off some readers. In exploring the desert Southwest through her fiction, Kingsolver was able to inject a sense of magic and wonder into her work. It was as if the reader discovered the secrets of the landscape at the same time as the author. With Prodigal Summer, she returns to a place so familiar we feel more as if we are being taken on a tour by a highly educated tour guide who wants us to walk away loaded with facts.

Still, it is a pleasant and often fascinating tour. The characters never quite achieve flesh-and-blood status, but we are grateful nonetheless to learn about their lives and the beautiful place from which they sprung.

In her new novel, Disobedience, Jane Hamilton returns to the threatened habitat of the American teenager, most recently visited in her wonderful book A Short History of a Prince. At the book's center is high school senior Henry Shaw, a precocious sibling in a well-educated, cultured but slightly off-kilter middle-class family that includes his father Kevin, a high school history teacher; mother Beth, a classical pianist; and sister Elvira, an offbeat Civil War fanatic and re-enactor.

Henry, who is exploring love and sex for the first time in his sheltered life, accidentally discovers via e-mail that his mother (user name Liza38) is having an affair with a reclusive violin maker (real name Richard Polloco, user name rPoll), and Henry figuring out what to do with this information takes up most of the novel's attention.

Hamilton keeps the tone light, even humorous, driving home the point that parents are as fallible as their children and that making a mistake or falling out of line doesn't necessarily spell doom for a well-grounded family, though it can cause a great deal of confusion and pain.

Henry, speaking from a retrospective point of view 10 years after the affair, becomes quite adept at analyzing the gaps in his parents' relationship, understanding at the same time what's missing (passion, adventure) and what keeps them together (their peculiar habits, their communication gaps, their children).

Ultimately, Disobedience becomes less about Beth's affair with Richard and more about the survival of a family through turbulent times, and that shift in focus sets the book slightly off balance. We are lured into the affair with the seductive, familiar message -- You've got mail! -- at the beginning, and grow dissatisfied when we learn little more than where and how Richard Polloco lives. Hamilton promises the juice and barely delivers.

However, the book is redeemed by the development of its two most interesting characters, taciturn Kevin and wacky Elvira. An endearing outsider, Elvira is more solid in her convictions and interests than either her solid sibling Henry or her confused mother Beth. And Kevin, in his quiet way, supports her in being whoever she wants to be, even if that means she dresses in handmade Union army uniforms. Elvira's sexual development provides a sweet and unexpected counterpart to her mother's experimentation, and Kevin, who at first appears ineffectual and distant, proves to be a hero of sorts in the end.

Hamilton's writing is elegant as always, but this book will not likely draw the kind of attention her earlier books (The Book of Ruth, A Map of the World) garnered. She is best at describing the dark side of life on the fringes of normality. Here, the fringe is comfortable, safe and secure in spite of a few bumps in the road. We can ride along on cruise control enjoying her storytelling ability, understanding that there will be no serious detours along the way.


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