Mothers of nature howling at the moon

In 1928, Virginia Woolf explained why we'd never heard of Judith Shakespeare: William's (mythical) sister was just as clever and poetic as the famous playwright, but she never had a room of her own in which to think and write.

Well, Judith lives in a mansion of her own now. Women not only write the most popular fiction (Danielle Steele, Jackie Collins), they also write some of the best (Toni Morrison, Joyce Carol Oates, Margaret Atwood). And the most reliable bestseller maker in America is a woman named Oprah.

This is all a good thing, of course, but the audience hungry for new novels is an impatient one. In exchange for a room of their own, writers - men and women - find they have no time of their own. The surprise bestseller carefully nurtured through years of consideration and revision spawns a contract for the next book in 16 months. The new writer hungry for editorial advice rises into a celebrity of uneditable wisdom.

As a result, the clever stories of Jane Smiley cry out for judicious excision, the moving novels of Anita Shreve are stained with bits of pulp, and the sensitive fiction of Alice Hoffman stumbles into potholes of cliche.

Similarly, "Prodigal Summer" is full of the tenderness, humor, and earthy spirituality Kingsolver fans expect, but a little more time could have raised it from good to great. Whereas her last blockbuster, "The Poisonwood Bible" (1998), railed against the evils of colonialism and religious intolerance, this new book is an education in ecology. There are moments when the plot fades and a lectern slides out from the margins, but the real problem isn't the preaching, it's the primping.

Three loosely connected stories of women in southern Appalachia wind through "Prodigal Summer." The first concerns Deanna Wolfe, a forest ranger living in a mountain cabin, apart from the complications and destructiveness of civilization. She's a woman highly sensitized to the smells of the forest, the textures of the earth, and the cycles of the moon.

She's spent years protecting her fecund mountain to restore the delicate balance of nature. Just as she spots a family of coyotes - the culmination of her research - a studly hunter named Eddie Bondo struts into view and marches us across "The Bridges of Madison County."

In case we haven't seen the covers of romance novels at the grocery store, Kingsolver tells us he was "deeply muscular in the way that shows up through a man's clothing.... Under the sandpaper grain of a two-day beard he had a jaw she knew the feel of against her skin." When a line like that lumbers out of the forest, you should bang some pots together and frighten it away.

Fortunately, the other two plots are far more subtle and innovative. Lusa Landowski is just learning to love her husband when his truck jackknifes, and she finds herself alone with judgmental sisters-in-law who have never accepted her. Her Polish heritage and study of entomology seem useless in this rigid farm community, but gradually her willingness to love them without backing down meets a response. When Lusa decides to hang on to her husband's farm but reject the family's tobacco and pesticides, she finds more support than she expected.

As usual, Kingsolver's dialogue is absolutely natural, often funny, and sometimes heartbreaking. That's particularly true in the novel's best story line about Nannie Rawley, a radical old woman who gracefully torments her conservative neighbor Mr. Garnett Walker. He's perpetually shocked by Nannie: She had a child out of wedlock; she allows weeds to grow on her land; she wears short pants. What's worse, she courts dangerous ideas like organic farming and Unitarianism. He's heard rumors that at her church the women wear indecorous underwear.

Bound by Christian duty to win her back to the truth, Garnett represses his rage long enough to send righteous letters to her across the fence about insecticides, lawn care, and the evils of so-called evolution. With these two, Kingsolver has created the most refreshing and funny love affair of the year.

"Prodigal Summer" is a novel of happy endings, or happy continuings. There's plenty of heartache here, but none of the haunting bitterness of "The Poisonwood Bible." These three female protagonists struggle against a culture that denigrates them for not being "natural ladies," but in nature, they find far more profound ways to be women.

Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send e-mail comments to charlesr@csps.com.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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