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Thursday, September 18, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 50.0° F  Fog/Mist
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A Book A Week: The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver

I have a love/hate relationship with Barbara Kingsolver. No, wait, that's too strong. It's more of a "this is good"/"this is surprisingly dull" kind of split. Poisonwood Bible? Loved it. Prodigal Summer? B-O-R-I-N-G. Luckily The Lacuna falls into the "good" basket.

The Lacuna is the story of Harrison Shepherd, the son of an American father and a Mexican mother, who moves between two wildly different worlds (the U.S. and Mexico) in the 1940s and 1950s. It's written as a sort of memoir, made up of fragments of Harrison's diaries that have been collected after his death by his longtime secretary.

Luckily for us, Harrison has been in a lot of interesting situations at exactly the right time. As a young man in Mexico City he manages to find work as a plasterer for Diego Rivera, and later goes to work in Rivera's house as a cook, where he gets acquainted with Rivera's wife, the painter Frida Kahlo. Then he becomes the secretary to Leon Trotsky, in exile in Mexico City, Trotsky having found asylum in Mexico under the sponsorship of Rivera. Once back in the U.S. Harrison works as a writer, but his association with Trotsky comes back to haunt him as he becomes a target of Senator Joseph McCarthy and the FBI.

Shepherd himself is enigmatic, a lens through which we view the action happening all around him. At times the secretary provides yet another layer of separation between the reader and the action, as we read the secretary's interpretation of Harrison's diary entries about a specific event. It sounds like it wouldn't work, but it does. Or rather, it did for me. I know some reviewers were lukewarm about this aspect of the book, and about Harrison's essential flatness, the way he is a person to whom things happen, rather than an actor himself.

I listened to the audiobook read by Kingsolver and highly recommend it, especially to readers who told me they tried this book and couldn't get into it. Her descriptions of life in Mexico are really engrossing, and she is a good reader.

Becky Holmes blogs about books at A Book A Week.

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