I don't usually recommend novels, though this isn't the first one I've chosen. It's not that I don't like fiction, it's that the thing I like about fiction--the chance to explore worlds and people--is actually more rewarding when the worlds and people are real. It's like how it might be nice to play "house," but if you're actually married that's better because you never have to stop. I like novels, but I can usually find non-fiction books that are more novel than novels are.
Occasionally, though, I find a novel that's a better essay than most essays are, and then I really get excited. Fictional essays have the freedom to braid together several different strands of an argument, without ever directly stating their point. In the hands of a master, the result is not vagueness but richness and subtlety. Barbara Kingsolver is such a master, and this novel is such a book.
Prodigal summer uses an alternating chapter format, where three shorter stories all set in the same community take turns presenting themselves. Initially, all three seem quite separate, but they become progressively less so. One story is that of an entomologist who has recently married a Virginia tobacco grower, and has still more recently been widowed. Another story is about a forest ranger who loves coyotes, yet becomes involved with a man who hunts them. The third story is that of an old and widowed man who is trying to breed blight-resistant chestnuts while feuding with his neighbor, an organic apple grower. Each of these threads has at its heart a debate about ecology, whether that debate is an actual argument between two people, as in the two orchardists' arguments over pesticide use, or something more subtle, as when the widowed entomologist must figure out how to make a living from her land. None of the debates are ever just about ecology, and though some of the characters are sometimes quite clearly wrong, none of them are badguys.
There is actually quite a lot of ecology lecture embedded in the story, usually quite gracefully--one character will explain something to another within the flow of the tale. At least as important is the fact that no one is trying to cause anyone a problem; these are not debates between good and bad people, these are stories about people in different situations with different priorities trying to find ways to get along with each other. When I went to graduate school and heard my professors start talking about stake-holders and community buy-in and the strange, counter-intuitive twists of the science and the art at hand, I knew what they were talking about. This book had told me.
I suppose, one could find Kingsolver's style annoying; my sister does. It's a bit over-done in places, perhaps, and maybe not everyone likes their fiction riddled with science and politics, however graceful the riddling. But the style works for me, and this book says some things that need to be said.
Here is an example of its food for thought; eventually, the entomologist widow settles on raising goats for slaughter, rather than tobacco. Part of her reasoning is that tobacco requires pesticide use and goats don't. As she tells another character, "this way I only have to kill 50 animals, not 50,000."
And there's a sex scene involving a giant moth.
So, read this book, have a good time with the story and the characters, and let your thoughts feed.
Kingsolver, B. (2000). Prodigal Summer. HarperCollins: New York, NY