Following the phenomenal achievement of The Poisonwood Bible, Barbara Kingsolver has earned a reputation as a storyteller of deep compassion, wry humor, and moral conviction. Now her fifth novel, Prodigal Summer, reveals her to be in full possession of her gifts as she spins three poignant stories against the hardscrabble landscape of southern Appalachia, where creepers and Japanese beetles have exacted a toll on small farmers. Over the course of a long, hot summer, Kingsolver's big-hearted characters begin to grudgingly reconcile themselves with nature and find they can love one another, too.
At the center of this sprawling tale is a pack of coyotes that has wandered into the territory that park ranger Deanne Wolfe patrols in the aftermath of her divorce. For two years Wolfe has subsisted alone, her solitude proof that she didn't need marriage in the first place. The coyotes are her only companions until Eddie Bondo shows up, with a 30-30 rifle slung over his muscled shoulder, wearing a winning smirk. Within a few hours of meeting they are tearing off each other's clothes as they writhe across the plank floors of Wolfe's log cabin. She eventually discovers that Eddie is more than just a freelance hunter and lothario: He's on a bounty mission to catch and kill her precious coyotes.
Lusa Maluf Landowski faces a more wrenching choice between tending to her land and protecting her heart. A young widow burdened with a heavily mortgaged farm and ornery in-laws, she realizes it might be easier to mend her wounds if she moves on. And staying put would be a huge endeavor: Her barn needs a new roof, her tobacco plants aren't turning a profit, and she desperately craves companionship to fill the lonely hours at home. A few miles down the road, two elderly neighbors, Garnett Walker and Nannie Rawley -- one a devotee of pesticides, the other an organic farmer -- lock horns over whether God intended humankind to meddle with the environment. He rips down her "No Spray Zone" sign, while she accuses him of hubris. Despite their intransigent positions, they feed off each other's ardor and draw inevitably closer together.
Erotic and poetic, Prodigal Summer is Kingsolver's most profoundly philosophical work. With prose that is as supple as a bobcat's tread, she paces deftly between each character's tale, as they search for deeper meaning in the natural world around them. Wolfe knows that by sheltering predators she's removed humankind from nature's equation and attempted to make a false Eden of the woods. Bondo, however, forces her to accept that she needs the companionship of her own species. Lusa and Garnett realize that to live off their land they need to cede it a certain respect. And by so doing, they awaken to a richer connection with the earth and a renewed belief in the essential importance of love.
With a master's assured cadence, Kingsolver winds between these narratives, sprinkling them with telling details about Kentucky's flora and fauna. Moths, goats, and even snapping turtles are captured in their lush splendor. Kingsolver cleverly uses their behavioral patterns as a counterpoint to the petty wrangling of her human characters. Ultimately, though, she affirms that humans are only one link in the chain of life. Prodigal Summer offers a pointedly eloquent argument for the necessity to live within nature's strictures. In this regard, Kingsolver proves an adept moralist, one determined to raise our awareness of the prodigal ways we squander our greatest inheritance: the world in which we live.