20 Books of Summer, #8 and #9: Prodigal Summer and All Over Creation

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Before rereading: I first read Prodigal Summer in 2010, when I was twenty-three, and backpacking around Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia. (The fact that I carried this secondhand hardback edition back to the UK with me indicates how much I liked it – it still has a sticker that says ‘Librería el lector [The Reader Bookshop], Arequipa’ on the back). It was one of my top ten books of 2010, and I frequently cite it as one of the best examples of fiction that deals with a biologist trying to make a rural community understand the value of an apex predator. (This may sound like a niche topic, but there’s The Wolf Border, Once There Were Wolvesand Happinessamong others). However… I remember very little about it, other than that I found it slightly preachy, but not nearly as preachy as Kingsolver’s other novels. I did not review it at the time.

After rereading: This is just such a beautiful book. There’s no other way of putting it. It’s the best kind of comfort read for me, one that is realistic about loss and suffering but creates a world in which people can gradually mend. Prodigal Summer has three, largely separate story threads. Deanna is a wildlife biologist working for the Forest Service in the southern Appalachians, employed to deter poachers and tracking a family of coyotes who have recently returned to the region. In the valley below, Lusa is newly widowed and isolated on her husband’s farm, surrounded by her hostile relatives and wondering if she should flee back to the city. Finally, her elderly neighbour Garnett broods over his losses and nurtures a grudge against his own neighbour Nannie, who refuses to use pesticides on her plants and so, he believes, is putting his project to save the American chestnut tree in danger. Despite the focus on grief and loneliness, Prodigal Summer, as befits its title, is also about the abundant reproduction of nature, its persistence and excess. All the characters long to have a relationship with the next generation, whether that’s through biological grandchildren or adopted kin. This time round, I didn’t find it preachy at all; my only slight hesitation was that there seems to be no place in this world for women who don’t want to mother, and that Kingsolver’s own voice seeps through occasionally. Deanna and Lusa overlap a little too much in their worldviews, given the two characters’ very different backgrounds. Nevertheless, this remains my favourite Kingsolver novel (up there with Flight Behaviour) and it was an utter joy to spend time with.

My rating in 2010: ****1/2

My rating in 2022: ****1/2

L: The edition I originally read. R: The (much uglier) edition I read this time.

Before rereading: I first read All Over Creation in 2014, when I was twenty-seven. I’d loved Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being and wanted to read more by her, and I thought this one sounded more up my street than My Year of Meats (which I actually loved when I eventually got round to reading it in 2020). However, I couldn’t get on with it, and didn’t finish it. I now don’t remember much about it other than that it featured GM crops, possibly potatoes.

After rereading: Sadly, I haven’t changed my mind about this one, although I did make it all the way through this time. I think Ozeki was going for something akin to Prodigal Summer. There are several major groupings of characters: Yumi, returning to her home town in Idaho twenty-five years after she ran away at the age of fourteen; her estranged parents, Lloyd and Momoko; her old best friend Cass, childless and miserable; her ex-teacher and ex-lover Elliot, who now works for NuLife, a company developing GM potatoes; and a group of environmental activists, the Seeds of Resistance. But both these characters’ stories and the exploration of GM crops feel shortchanged.

The novel has no central protagonist, which is not necessarily a problem, but all the cast feel under-developed. Yumi regresses to her teenage self, but we get no sense of who she was in the years between. Cass is defined solely by her longing for a baby and her criticisms of Yumi’s neglectful parenting of her three children. Lloyd, Momoko and Elliot are basically caricatures, and the hippy activists reminded me of the irritating group of library misfits in The Book of Form and Emptiness(Speaking of Ozeki’s latest, I think it’s actually the better novel of the two; All Over Creation doesn’t have the twee asides from the Book, which is a big plus, but neither does it have the strong, nuanced character work of the relationship between Benny and Annabelle). Finally, Ozeki does not interweave the theme of GM crops into her story as artfully as Kingsolver weaves her environmental messages, even though both authors have something to say about pesticides. I’d definitely recommend My Year of Meats or A Tale For The Time Being instead.

My rating in 2014: ***

My rating in 2022: ***

14 thoughts on “20 Books of Summer, #8 and #9: Prodigal Summer and All Over Creation

  1. I’ve always had a soft spot for Kingsolver, although I do find her work occasionally preachy, but Prodigal Summer has always appealed and I’ve never read it. This just confirms that I really should! Bummer about the Ozeki, though. Might give it a go anyway if I come across it, A Tale for the Time Being was so great.

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    • I’ve found some of Kingsolver’s books very preachy (Unsheltered, The Poisonwood Bible, The Lacuna) but others not at all (this one, Flight Behaviour, The Bean Trees). Would definitely recommend Prodigal Summer, especially as IIRC, you liked Hall’s The Wolf Border a lot.

      With Ozeki, I’d really recommend My Year of Meats. It’s quite different from A Tale for the Time Being but still brilliant.

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  2. The Kingsolver sounds good, and I’ve been meaning to try something by her for a while! I’ve also been meaning to try something else by Ozeki (I’ve only read A Tale for the Time Being, and that was years ago), but it sounds like this may not be the best one to head to next.

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  3. Your South American backpacking adventure sounds fabulous! I wonder if when and where you read it is part of your fondness for the Kingsolver. I had a secondhand hardback in the States but got rid of it at some point, so it can’t have made much of an impression on me, but I’d like to give it another try.

    All Over Creation sounds similar to My Year of Meats, like she was reworking some of its themes but not as successfully. It’s my last unread Ozeki but I’d better not build it up too much in my mind.

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    • I would have thought that prior to rereading it (there definitely are books I read on that trip that I have more affection for than I would have otherwise, e.g. Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose) but my experience this time around suggests it’s stood the test of time/being read in boring locations.

      All Over Creation did remind me a bit of My Year of Meats thematically, but tonally I unfortunately thought it was closer to The Book of Form and Emptiness. I hope you enjoy it more than I did.

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  4. I love your description of Prodigal Summer as a comfort read that is realistic but also allows characters to mend. I am completely sold on it and will definitely be getting myself a copy. Also, I wasn’t a huge fan of the character work in The Wolf Border, in spite of loving the premise, and Prodigal Summer sounds like it does something similar, but better.
    All Over Creation is the only Ozeki that I haven’t read yet and I am still planning on giving it a go. Its similarities to The Book of Form and Emptiness might mean that I enjoy it more than you did, but, to be honest, it has always been the Ozeki novel that I have had the lowest expectations of.

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    • Ah, I really hope you enjoy it! I didn’t especially get on with The Wolf Border either.

      I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on All Over Creation as I know you liked Form and Emptiness much more than I did – but I do think it lacks some of the things I actually admired in Form and Emptiness 🙁

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      • Your review has prompted me to prioritize a re-read of My Year of Meats, but I am hoping to get to All Over Creation before the end of the year. At the very least I am hoping that it will be interesting to examine Ozeki’s work as a whole, and see the interplay of themes, tone, style etc.

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  5. So glad you still loved Prodigal Summer, I’m pretty sure I’ve re-read it (yes, I read it in 2003 and 2016: https://librofulltime.wordpress.com/2016/10/13/book-reviews-mrs-arris-goes-to-paris-and-prodigal-summer/), and I got my husband addicted to her as she reads most of her own audiobooks! I like her earlier ones too and I loved Unsheltered; I haven’t read the The Lacuna as it’s about fictionalised real people (yes, I know about Unsheltered but I didn’t know in advance!) and I read The Poisonwood Bible even though it was a novel set in Africa and I don’t usually like those (got put off by Paul Therox, Conrad and Doris Lessing!). I loved All Over Creation at the time (pre-blog) and I also loved My Year of Meats but wouldn’t be able to cope with the meat / fertility themes now. Really loved A Tale for the Time Being, too, but have so not fancied the new one.

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    • Lovely to read your review! Kingsolver is a bit hit and miss for me: I loved Flight Behaviour and The Bean Trees but often find her quite preachy. I wouldn’t recommend the latest Ozeki.

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  6. Pingback: 20 Books of Summer, 2022: A Retrospective | Laura Tisdall

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