It's not unusual for an established writer to pen a mid-career novel all about sex. (Think John Updike or Nicholson Baker.) What's striking about "Prodigal Summer" is that Barbara Kingsolver's preoccupation with coupling never feels gratuitous or pandering. Her lusty birds, bees and baby boomers possess a profound innocence, and their urges animate a wide-ranging discussion of everything from organic farming to reengaging with life.
"Prodigal Summer" consists of three separate stories, each set in southern Appalachia and told in alternating chapters under the titles "Predators," "Moth Love" and "Old Chestnuts." In "Moth Love," Lusa Maluf Landowski marries the youngest and favorite son of the cliquish Widener clan. When Lusa is suddenly widowed, she defies expectations by ignoring the snide remarks of her five sisters-in-law and working the family farm. As Lusa slowly earns the Wideners' respect, one sister comments on the clubbiness of families: "That's what Joel said for years after we got married: 'Going to a Widener get-together is like a gol-dang trip to China.' Why is that? We don't seem like anything special to me."
"Old Chestnuts" is the funniest of the stories and the novel's ideological engine. Garnett Walker, a cranky conservative, verbally spars with his next-door neighbor, Nannie Rawley, an earthy-crunchy, Unitarian-church-going, Rachel Carson-loving orchard keeper. And in "Predators," a reclusive wildlife specialist named Deanna Wolfe is enraptured with a den of coyotes, animals reviled on the wooded mountain where she lives. When Eddie Bondo, a man 19 years Deanna's junior, arrives to hunt the coyotes, the two begin a passionate affair that upends her predictable existence.
Nature's call is audible throughout Kingsolver's world. In the opening pages she writes: "Here and now, spring heaved in its randy moment. Everywhere you looked, something was fighting for time, for light, the kiss of pollen, a connection of sperm and egg and another chance." Sex, the driving force that throws opposites suddenly and intimately together, provides a metaphor for man's dysfunctional relationship with nature that unifies the three stories and their characters.
In sexual desire, Kingsolver has also found the perfect titillating cover for her often-lampooned polemics on the environment and other lefty standards. Characters argue passionately against man's heedless meddling with nature (not surprisingly, pesticides and tobacco farming fare badly), but the theories espoused are never squishy. Deanna identifies with the peak of the food chain, preferring predators over pussycats hands down, while Nannie Rawley admits that "cutting a wheat field amounts to more decapitated bunnies under the combine than you'd believe."
Arriving so soon after Kingsolver's bestselling "The Poisonwood Bible," "Prodigal Summer" is bound to look modest in comparison, but it's no less accomplished. Her crowning achievement is delivering a sunny, emotionally resonant love story while suggesting that Deanna and Eddie are also primitive creatures obeying a biological imperative. Like an MTV video that alternates from seduction scene to microscope slides of sperm rushing toward egg, "Prodigal Summer" cuts between the mating rituals of moths and the overbred sentiments of man and woman. In the final pages, it's nature that emerges triumphant, a collective consciousness cutting our human preoccupations down to size: "Every quiet step is thunder to beetle life underfoot, a tug of impalpable thread on the web pulling mate to mate and predator to prey, a beginning or an end."