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Damned by Faint Praise: La Lacuna

You’ll recall I had a plan for my 2010 reading.

Not sure how long the plan will last, but I am usually good for step 1. And item one on my list was The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver. I even went so far to say it was my reliable author pick.

It was reliable.
It was nice. Perfectly pleasant, even.

And that, my friends, is what we call in my family ‘damned by faint praise’.

Let’s not even start with the fact that I loved Poisonwood Bible so much I was expecting great things. Let’s just move straight to the fact that it would have been slightly more joyful for me to say this novel sucks apples. Because at least my pulse would be elevated. (Remember Oscar Wao? I was b.u.g.g.e.d.)

La Lacuna lets you drift through ever so gently, untouched.

Which is shocking, really, because Kingsolver seems to throw in about as many cameo celebrity appearances as a Robert Altman film. We have Diego Rivera, then well, hello! here is Frida Kahlo and, my goodness, Lev Trotsky and his communist writings. If Stalin had personally shown up, I would have lit the thing on fire. It defied even fiction.

It’s a story of Harrison Shepherd, a young boy of a social climbing and slightly crazy Mexican mother and an absentee American father. His real journey begins when he expertly mixes plaster for Rivera’s grand mural, eventually earns his way into the kitchen of their household and befriends the fiery Frida Kahlo. In this life, he is part of a community, both intellectual and revolutionary.

Through his years of journaling (all except that incredibly important one that is missing), we trace the narrative of the lead character’s life through his own voice. We follow him from coming of age in Mexico to his adult life as a notorious fiction writer in North Carolina. This narrative spans 1929 – 1950 and the dense historical context of the time — the Depression, World War II, on through the McCarthy trials. Whew.

This story is confused by the inclusion of Violet Brown, Harrison Sherpherd’s stenographer and private secretary. She ‘transcribes’ all of the personal journals and there are minor interruptions from Violet’s voice in a few strategic places.

Hrrmpff. This bothered.

But Violet Brown was indeed necessary to get to Kingsolver’s main point…which is the meaning of the Lacuna.

While Lacuna is literally a type of lagoon, Frida tells Harrison that it is the ‘missing piece’:

“Frida, you always said that the most important thing about any person is what you don’t know. Likewise, then, the most important part of any story is the missing piece.”

Without Violet, it would be impossible to know of the missing journal. And for Harrison’s story, this is the critical missing piece.

But this left less of an impression than the bigger concept of Lacuna.

How many people do we meet every day, do we know as friends and colleagues and spouses, that we don’t really know what story is their lacuna–the piece that is critical to their story? That seemed powerful.

Otherwise, let’s be definitive in our faint praise.
“Lacuna” is a wonderfully fun phrase to say.

Say it aloud for kicks.

25 Comments Post a comment
  1. Of course I mean my 2010 reading!

    February 2, 2010
  2. Me #

    Just found your blog and LOVE the concept. I too am very much a book snob. So…. you didn’t love the new Kingsolver. Humm. I haven’t tried it yet, perhaps I will skip as well. I read what you had to say about Oscar Wao and right on! I am so with you on that one. What’s up next?

    February 2, 2010
    • Next up on fiction is Let the Great World Spin…for you?

      February 2, 2010
  3. carole sinclair #

    Love the question “How many people do we meet every day, do we know as friends and colleagues and spouses, that we don’t really know what story is their lacuna–the piece that is critical to their story?”

    Yet again, right on. I wish that I devoured books as quickly as you!

    Great job KtK!

    February 2, 2010
  4. Jazzie #

    I LOVE your blog. Just found it.

    I enjoyed The Lacuna. I’d go so far as to say I really liked it. I liked the comparison of cooking to plaster making which came up frequently. The setting, the writing, the mystery of The Lacuna, the McCarthy era issues; it was a rambling, enjoyable ride for me. I passed it on to my husband who was not at all captured by the story. He didn’t finish it.

    That said, it’s no Poisonwood Bible. But that one will be hard to top.

    I’m so happy to have found your blog!

    February 2, 2010
    • There were things to like for sure. (Enough that it motivated a spring trip to Yucatan to see Chichen Itza!) I guess I just wanted more.

      February 2, 2010
      • Jazzie #

        Oh…and I was IN Mexico at the time of the reading. So add that to my enjoyment factor.

        Enjoy Chichen Itza!

        February 2, 2010
  5. I feel the same way about this book. I’d waited MONTHS for it to come in for me at the library, and I was determined to enjoy it, but although I liked various ideas in the book, it never came together completely for me. I wanted to be absorbed in the story, but I was mostly underwhelmed.

    February 2, 2010
    • Thanks for your comment. Underwhelmed is the perfect description.

      February 2, 2010
  6. easyreader #

    I agree that The Lacuna didn’t measure up to The Poisonwood Bible, but I don’t know that it could have, really. Toward the end of the book, I felt that the narrative became bogged down needlessly heavy-handed political trope. Kingsolver is capable of far greater subtlety and nuance than she displayed here. And I felt there was more than a bit of whitewashing of Trotsky’s character, which I suppose one might attribute to Harrison Shepherd’s naivety. Still, I think this black-and-white rendering of such a complex man didn’t necessarily serve the book well. That said, I’d argue that we’ll still look back and say that it was better than 95% of the fiction published in 2009. We (or I, at least) simply expect more from Kingsolver than we do from most writers, and with good reason.

    February 3, 2010
    • Great comments. Trostky was nearly irrelevant, I agree. But your last one caught my attention. I had a friend who said: I agree with your review, but it still was one of the best books I read in the last year. So it’s good to keep it in perspective. It also highlights the fact that writing second, third, fourth etc. novels must be terribly daunting for those that have had amazing success.

      February 3, 2010
  7. Lisa Groeninger #

    Hey KT
    love your blog…it’s nice to hear your “voice”. I loved poisonwood bible as well- sorry to hear that this did not rise to the same level. These days I need something with a little more oomph…
    Catch you later xxoo Lisa

    February 3, 2010
    • Love knowing you are out there. How about reading Let the Great World Spin with me? Paperback and it’s next up….

      February 4, 2010
  8. Diane Johnson #

    hmmm. did not see your review for A Gate at the Stairs. How am I missing it. Of the five that is most likely the one I’d go for. Based on the description.

    March 9, 2010
  9. Natalie McCullough #

    Okay, first I will admit that I am only half way through the book (45% according to my Kindle). But, so far…I really like it. Maybe I am not reading enough other good stuff out there, but Kingsolver is still among the best at weaving a story together that is historic & lyrical & compelling & somewhat mythic.

    KTK- I think you are suffering from a case of mis-managed expectations!

    That said, loved the posting!

    March 15, 2010
    • 1. Love the 45% on Kindle, but I think that feature may stress out the task completion fanatic in me.2. Most of my disappointment in life is a function of mismanaged expectations : )3. The more good stuff I read, the more resolved I am that this was a pleasant but not great book….

      March 15, 2010
  10. Donna Carrere #

    I’m reading La Lacuna now, halfway through and feel I’m floating in warm butter. Reliable author pick is my situation. She is giving me exactly what I want: an exotic saga with lots of details, eloquent and elegant.

    June 21, 2010
  11. I am nearly done with La Lacuna. I have read all of B. Kingsolvers books. Its funny because a lot of people I know did not like Poisonwood Bible. I did. I like La Lacuna. I like it because Kingsolver has a beautiful way of weaving a story. If you can put your disdain aside for the popular charactors used, I think the book talks about some important things ( I have focused mainly on the deceptions in the novel- the government, the media, people in general). Maybe if I was a major history buff I would feel the same as you. For me it is easier to fantasize about different stories about famous people. I put aside my faint knowledge of history and follow the writer. But do we really know the real story of famous people anyhow?

    October 31, 2010
  12. Danielle #

    I can’t get past the last 1/3 of the book. The first part was so interesting, but now I feel it’s going so slowly and I don’t even know if I care about the main character any more. Kingslover lost me on this one. I am a true fan of her writing too, and have never had such apathy about any of her characters.

    February 27, 2011
  13. coach コレクション

    September 11, 2013

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