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Book 29 Completed

May 17, 2010

The Poisonwood Bible is a beautiful read — the story Kingsolver commits to telling is epic and lyrical — sweeping through nearly 30 years of a family’s history: From packing Betty Crocker cake mixes by stuffing them into waistbands to take to the Congo for a year to work as missionaries, to the culminating ending of a family divided.

I read the book with rapt interest…until the last 150 pages. At 600 pages, I’m sorry to admit that I found the book too long. The ending felt like a drawn-out epilogue than a satisfying ending to a story well-told. While an epilogue may not have done the characters justice, I’m not sure readers needed the extra 29 years of history as much as Kingsolver needed to write it down.

But the beginning of the book is riveting all the way up to the denouement — a tragedy foreshadowed through the mother’s chapters.  Each daughter is a fully realized character, with her own voice, her own strengths and own demons. I loved reading Adah’s own distinct poetic perspective; I loved the nuances of Leah’s transformation; I enjoyed Ruth May’s childlike wonder and profound insight; And I hated Rachel’s smug self-centeredness, malapropisms, and secretly hoped I could wish her into an African demise.

I’ve heard people complain about Kingsolver’s agenda and her manipulation of character and plot to highlight that purpose. That’s interesting to me because I feel most books are very simply manipulation of character and plot. Writers are like magicians – if they manipulate your emotions without letting you see the mirrors, the strings, the secret compartments, you are amazed. If you catch a glimpse of the illusion, then you’re less forgiving. I happen to think Kingsolver’s book is well crafted and that her ability to keep her agendas (arguably anti-American, anti-Christian, pro-relativism) structured into her complex character development is impressive.

Yes, Kingsolver admits she wanted to write a book designed to paint a portrait of Congo’s quest for independence and the US foreign policy that crippled a nation. She is also critical of people who want to paint this novel as anti-Christian, expressing that “The Hunchback of Notre Dame is not about the hypocrisy of archdeacons or the moral benefits of scoliosis, and Moby-Dick is not an anti-whale rant.” The dialogue about missional work in Africa is fascinating to me; it begs discussion, not condemnation. And Nathan Price, one of this book’s unredeemed villains, is equally intriguing. I found Nathan sad — I wished Kingsolver had more of an affinity for him; maybe enough to give him his own voice. However, this is a book about women. You only hear women tell this story – Nathan is background. He is not one-dimensional, however, which would have been the easier decision to make.

Kingsolver’s agenda seems clear to me: Tell a story with setting and character as deep as the ocean.

I think reading something of this magnitude takes some strength — in stamina (the ending, for sure) and in perspective. And while I’m not a huge Kingsolver fan, I appreciate the scope and magnitude of this novel and I appreciate the opportunity to travel on this journey with Nathan, Orleanna, Adah, Leah, Rachel, and Ruth May Price. It was worth it.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Jessica permalink
    May 17, 2010 9:06 pm

    So, I started to read your review on my Blackberry, but didn’t get very far before yoga class started and without really reading your review wanted to comment, “Did you think it was too long? I thought it was too long!” So, you validate my reading, Shelbi. 🙂 Like you, I thought that the book had a great ending…. 150 or so pages before it actually ended. I read it several years ago (Barb Murray actually recommended it to me one year when I went back to the high school to visit her) and I really enjoyed it (except for the ending) but have never picked up any of her other books. It quite possibly may be the only book set in Africa that I read of my own volition.

  2. Beth Hallquist permalink
    May 18, 2010 8:14 am

    I enjoyed this one too, Shelbi.. you’ve written the review of it that sums up what I thought!

  3. Missy permalink
    May 19, 2010 7:27 pm

    I also read that book several years ago, and have to agree, it could have ended much sooner than it did. Although it really was a great book. I’ve wanted to read more of her stuff, but just haven’t.

    I’m in the middle of The Book Thief – really enjoying it.

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