The Lacuna

The Lacuna

3.4 235
by Barbara Kingsolver

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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

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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.

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Editorial Reviews

Liesl Schillinger
How can the experiences of a fictional loner merge with those of larger-than-life figures who played a pivotal role in world politics? And what can readers learn from their intersection? Those are the questions answered by this dazzling novel, which plunges into Shepherd's notebooks to dredge up not only the perceptions they conceal but also a history larger than his own, touching on everything from Trotskyism, Stalinism and the Red scare to racism, mass hysteria and the media's intrusion into personal and national affairs…The Lacuna can be enjoyed sheerly for the music of its passages on nature, archaeology, food and friendship; or for its portraits of real and invented people; or for its harmonious choir of voices. But the fuller value of Kingsolver's novel lies in its call to conscience and connection. She has mined Shepherd's richly imagined history to create a tableau vivant of epochs and people that time has transformed almost past recognition. Yet it's a tableau vivant whose story line resonates in the present day, albeit with different players. Through Shepherd's resurrected notebooks, Kingsolver gives voice to truths whose teller could express them only in silence.
—The New York Times
Ron Charles
…the most mature and ambitious [novel] she's written during her celebrated 20-year career, but it's also [Kingsolver's] most demanding…a novel of capital-L Liberal ideas—workers' rights, sexual equality, artistic freedom…Nevertheless, this rich novel is certainly bigger than its politics. It resurrects several dramatic events of the early 20th century that have fallen out of public consciousness, brings alive the forgotten details of everyday life in the 1940s, and illustrates how attitudes and prejudices are shaped by political opportunism and the rapacious media. But despite this large, colorful canvas, ultimately The Lacuna is a tender story about a thoughtful man who just wanted to enjoy that basic American right: the right to be left alone.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
Kingsolver's ambitious new novel, her first in nine years (after the The Poisonwood Bible), focuses on Harrison William Shepherd, the product of a divorced American father and a Mexican mother. After getting kicked out of his American military academy, Harrison spends his formative years in Mexico in the 1930s in the household of Diego Rivera; his wife, Frida Kahlo; and their houseguest, Leon Trotsky, who is hiding from Soviet assassins. After Trotsky is assassinated, Harrison returns to the U.S., settling down in Asheville, N.C., where he becomes an author of historical potboilers (e.g., Vassals of Majesty) and is later investigated as a possible subversive. Narrated in the form of letters, diary entries and newspaper clippings, the novel takes a while to get going, but once it does, it achieves a rare dramatic power that reaches its emotional peak when Harrison wittily and eloquently defends himself before the House Un-American Activities Committee (on the panel is a young Dick Nixon). “Employed by the American imagination,” is how one character describes Harrison, a term that could apply equally to Kingsolver as she masterfully resurrects a dark period in American history with the assured hand of a true literary artist. (Nov.)
Library Journal
Diego Rivera's mural in Mexico's Palacio Nationale was only half complete the day young Harrison Shepherd stood transfixed before it, but he would be forever captive to the extraordinary power of the imagination. A solitary child, a devourer of books, left to his own devices by a mother chasing unattainable men and a father pencil pushing for the government back in the States, Harrison observes and he writes. When a quirk of fate lands him in the home of Communist sympathizers Rivera and Frida Kahlo, Rivera's wife, Harrison becomes enmeshed in the turbulent history that will inform his life and work. Through the distinctive voices of Harrison and his insightful amanuensis, Violet Brown, Kingsolver paints a verbal panorama spanning three decades and two countries. World War I veterans protesting for benefits denied, the unleashing of the atomic bomb, the McCarthy hearings, censorship of the arts, and abuse by the press corps lend credence to the sentiment that the more things change, the more they remain the same. VERDICT As in The Poisonwood Bible, Kingsolver perfects the use of multiple points of view, even reprinting actual newspaper articles to blur the line between fact and fiction. This is her most ambitious, timely, and powerful novel yet. Well worth the wait.—Sally Bissell, Lee Cty. Lib. Syst., Ft. Myers, FL
Kirkus Reviews
Unapologetically political metafiction from Kingsolver (Prodigal Summer, 2000, etc.) about the small mistakes or gaps (lacunas) that change history. Set in leftist Mexico in the 1930s and the United States in the '40s and '50s, the novel is a compilation of diary entries, newspaper clippings (real and fictional), snippets of memoirs, letters and archivist's commentary, all concerning Harrison Shepherd. In 1929, Harrison's Mexican-born mother deserts his American father, a government bureaucrat, and drags 11-year-old Harrison back to Mexico to live with her rich lover on a remote island. There Harrison discovers his first lacuna, an underwater cave that leads to a secret pool. As his mother moves from man to man, Harrison learns to fend for himself. His disastrous two-year stint at boarding school back in America is marked by his awakening homosexuality (left vague thanks to the lacuna of a missing diary) and his witnessing of the Hoover administration's violent reaction to a riot of World War I homeless vets. In 1935, Harrison returns to Mexico, where he becomes first a lowly but beloved member of the Diego Rivera/Frida Kahlo household, then secretary to Leon Trotsky until Trotsky's assassination. Kingsolver is at her best in the pages brimming with the seductive energy of '30s Mexico: its colors, tastes, smells, the high drama of Trotsky and Kahlo, but also the ordinary lives of peasants and the working poor. When Harrison returns to the States, however, the novel wilts. His character never evolves, and the dialogue grows increasingly polemic as his story becomes a case study of the postwar anticommunist witch-hunt. Harrison moves to Asheville, N.C., writes fabulously popular novelsabout ancient Mexico, hires as his secretary a widow whom the reader knows already as his archivist, and is then hounded out of the country by the House Un-American Activities Committee, with fateful results. A richly satisfying portrait of Mexico gives way to a preachy, padded and predictable chronicle of Red Scare America.
People Magazine
"[Kingsolver] hasn’t lost her touch...she delivers her signature blend of exotic locale, political backdrop and immediately engaging story line...teems with dark beauty."
“[Kingsolver] hasn’t lost her touch...she delivers her signature blend of exotic locale, political backdrop and immediately engaging story line...teems with dark beauty.”
Denver Post
“A work that is often close to magic.... Much research underlies this complex weaving...but the work is lofted by lyric prose.”
Philadelphia Inquirer
“...True and riveting...Barbara Kingsolver has invented a wondrous filling here, sweeter and thicker than pan dulce, spicy as the hottest Mexican chiles, paranoid as the American government hunting Communists ”
San Diego Union-Tribune
“A sweeping narrative of utopian dreams and political reality…A stirring novel…intimate and pitch-perfect.”
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
“Shepherd’s story in Kingsolver’s accomplished literary hands is so seductive, the prose so elegant, the architecture of the novel so imaginative, it becomes hard to peel away from the book”
Washington Post
“The most mature and ambitious [novel] she’s written…An absorbing portrayal of American life…A rich novel [with] a large, colorful canvas…A tender story about a thoughtful man.”
New York Times Book Review
“Breathtaking...dazzling...The Lacuna can be enjoyed sheerly for the music of its passages on nature, archaeology, food and friendship; or for its portraits of real and invented people...But the fuller value...lies in its call to conscience and connection.”
The New Yorker
“Compelling…Kingsolver’s descriptions of life in Mexico City burst with sensory detail—thick sweet breads, vividly painted walls, the lovely white feet of an unattainable love.”
Chicago Tribune
“Rich…impassioned…engrossing…Politics and art dominate the novel, and their overt, unapologetic connection is refreshing.”
“[Kingsolver’s] playful pastiche brings to vivid life the culture wars of an earlier era...”
Atlanta Journal-Constitution
“Kingsolver deftly combines real history and the life of the fictional protagonist…A sweeping tale.”
Los Angeles Times
“A lavishly gifted writer... Kingsolver [has a] wonderful ear for the quirks of human repartee. The Lacuna is richly spiked with period language... This book grabs at the heartstrings...”
Kansas City Star
“[Kingsolver] stirs the real with the imagined to produce a breathtakingly ambitious book, bold and rich…hopeful, political and artistic. The Lacuna fills a lacuna with powerfully imagined social history
San Francisco Chronicle Book Review
“Masterful…a reader receives the great gift of entering not one but several worlds…The final pages haunt me still.”
Seattle Times
“A sweeping mural of sensory delights and stimulating ideas about art, government, identity and history…Readers will feel the sting of connection between then and now.”

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Product Details

HarperCollins Publishers
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Meet the Author

Barbara Kingsolver's work has been translated into more than twenty languages and has earned a devoted readership at home and abroad. She was awarded the National Humanities Medal, our country's highest honor for service through the arts. She received the 2011 Dayton Literary Peace Prize for the body of her work, and in 2010 won Britain's Orange Prize for The Lacuna. Before she made her living as a writer, Kingsolver earned degrees in biology and worked as a scientist. She now lives with her family on a farm in southern Appalachia.

Brief Biography

Date of Birth:
April 8, 1955
Place of Birth:
Annapolis, Maryland
B.A., DePauw University, 1977; M.S., University of Arizona, 1981

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The Lacuna: Deluxe Modern Classic 3.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 235 reviews.
Cycling_Chef More than 1 year ago
Don't put this book down until after the first 100 pages. It's a slow starter, but once the story gets going, this book was great. Kingsolver describes a period in world history that is very interesting. I loved the main character and his story.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I kept wondering how she would end this quirky tale. Brilliantly!
BillPilgrim More than 1 year ago
Barbara Kingsolver is one of my favorite authors, and she did not disappoint me in this novel. She tells the story of revolutionary Mexico in the 1920's and 30's, and of the United States in the 1940's through the diaries and letters of Harrison S, who was born in the U.S. of an American father and a Mexican mother. He moved with his mother to Mexico when his parents separated. We see him as a boy when his mother is trying to snag a rich new husband. He goes to see the muralist Diego Garcia working and ends up mixing his plaster for him. He sees Frida Kalho in the market one day and offers to carry her purchases home for her. These chance events leads to his living in their household as a cook, typist, driver, etc. during the time that they give sanctuary to Trostsky, who is hiding from Stalin's assassins. After Trotsky is killed. Harrison moves to the States, for his own safety. He ends up in Asheville, North Carolina and becomes a famous author writing stories about Mexico's Native American people, but his prior associations, and his own beliefs, come to be, let's say, a disadvantage during the anti-communist hysteria. The book is a mix of fiction and history. It is of course based on actual events, and I was often left wondering how much was fact. The author tries to set this up in the beginning a bit, but not clearly enough for me. I am now left needing to read the source books she cites, but I am sure that I will find those quite enjoyable. I was a little bit wary that I would find the second half of the book less engaging that the portion based in Mexico. In The Poisonwood Bible, I so much more enjoyed the part of the book about the children growing up in the jungle than I did the end part when they were adults. But, that did not occur this time. Harrison's experiences as an author and as a target of the McCarthyites held my interest completely.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Barbara Kingsolver writes an amazing and thought provoking novel. It is not a fast read, but it spans an era that we do not often hear about. It tackles hard questions about who the villains of the last century really are and who are the innocent victims. I loved how she wove historical characters and actual events. When viewed through the eyes of the main character, they take on a whole new understanding. I thoroughly loved this book.
SuperReaderGirl More than 1 year ago
I will read anything by Barbara Kingsolver. It started with "The Bean Trees" and now I'm hooked. It's not so much the stories she writes, though they are always fascinating, it's the way they are written. I find myself re-reading sentences thinking, "How did she even think to put those words together?!" It's beautiful. The Lacuna gleans a mixed review from this reader. It was decidedly slow-moving. I did not feel any sort of emotional attachment to any of the characters (which is something I tend to enjoy in a novel). Let's just say, it took me about two weeks to read which is generally unheard of! Not exactly a page turner. However,in the end, I can say that I would have to recommend it, especially if you're a Kingsolver fan. The book is written as a series of journal entries, articles and editorial commentary that made it seem like non-fiction-- a form of writing that stands out as one of my favorites-- and takes the reader through the life of Harrison Shepherd, a would-be author who finds himself involved with the real life characters Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo and Trotsky during the period before, during and after World War Two. Kingsolver's books always have some underlying political commentary (which I generally do not agree with) and this was no different as the book brings the reader into the era of anti-communism and McCarthy. This book had me running to Google to check the facts. If only I had more time at work, I'd be on my way to becoming a cold war expert. Read it...
michelle_b More than 1 year ago
As many reviewers have noted, The Lacuna was a story in two parts. The first section -- the early life of Harrison Shepard in 1930s Mexico, working as a cook, typist, and occasional plaster-mixer in the household of Diego Rivera, Frida Khalo, and later Lev Trotsky. This section was beautiful, compelling, and often had me referring to the book as the best that I had read in a long time. Then the second part, Harrison Shephard moves to the United States. Due to his previous work for Rivera and Trotsky, Harrison gets pulled into McCarthy era fear of communist infiltration. Whereas the first half is a beautiful and compelling story, the second half feels more disjointed, more preaching than showing. Although I appreciated the clear commentary on the absurdity of modern conservative America, it felt somewhat forced at times. Still, the end came together better than I expected and I was left satisfied.
SugarCT More than 1 year ago
Kingsolver takes us on an historical journey seen through the eyes of an innocent; the political times and issues broached bring to mind the politics of today. Kinsolver's writing style is impressive and often reads as lovely prose with, however, deep and often heartrenching truths. A fabulous read! Enjoy!
DSkolnick More than 1 year ago
it's been a while since this avid reader was so awed by a book. It's not a book I breezed through -- I enjoyed savoring the beautiful language, images, and ideas. It is a brilliant commentary on how our lives are shaped by politics and forces larger than ourselves. Bravo, Barbara Kingsolver! This is a book to be treasured, reread, and talked about with other thoughtful readers.
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This is a most unusual and fascinating story. The writing is also very polished. It is a fairly long book but I was surprised at how quickly I finished it -- must have neglected chores and sleep to do that. It demonstrates the impact of public events on unsuspecting individuals and has a delightful twist for the ending.
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michMI More than 1 year ago
I have read a couple of bios of the character. I guess I'm not the usual reader; I found the book tedious, too long and didn't even finish it. I am a fan of Barbara Kingsolver, but didn't like this book at all and wouldn't lend it from my nook.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I love Barbara Kingsolver, but this is not one of her best.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The novel begins as a study in character, in human relationships, in the heart of an artist. But the political becomes personal as revolution, war, and the rise of communism profoundly affect the lives of both historical and fictional characters in this compelling novel.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I was shocked to see an overall rating of 3 stars. I loved this book, the marriage of history and fiction was inspired. The story unfolded with surprises I never expected. Kingsolver is a master of her craft. Read this novel! Your lucky it can be treasured for1.99.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Another great novel from one of America's best. The mix of actual history with her fictional characters is seamless. I wanted to Google both the real and made up character names to be sure. As always, Kingsolver addresses important social issues, this time, homosexuality, communism, prejudice, and war. You absolutely cannot go wrong with this novel.