Once again, the oddsmakers were proved wrong. This year Hilary Mantel's Booker Prize-winning "Wolf Hall" about the life of Thomas Cromwell was favored to win the prestigious Orange Prize for fiction. Instead, the award went to Barbara Kingsolver for her novel "The Lacuna."
"We chose 'The Lacuna' because it is a book of breathtaking scale and shattering moments of poignancy," said chief judge Daisy Goodwin. "We had very different tastes on the panel, but in the end we went for passion not compromise."
Not all of the British press, however, seems to share the judges' passion. " 'The Lacuna' was received with respectful disappointment by the majority of its reviewers and quite a few of its readers," notes Catherine Taylor, writing for the Guardian. Many readers, Taylor adds, consider Kingsolver's earlier novel "The Poisonwood Bible," shortlisted for the Orange Prize in 1999, to be her best work.
"The Lacuna" is Kingsolver's sixth novel. Its plot moves between Mexico and the cold war-era US. Mexican muralist Diego Rivera, his wife painter Frida Kahlo, and Russian exile Leon Trotsky all appear as characters. Monitor reviewer Yvonne Zipp called "The Lacuna" Kingsolver's "most ambitious novel" and found a central stretch of the book – set in Mexico City – to be "among the most compelling writing of Kingsolver’s career."
Once the action switches back to the US, however, Zipp wrote, "some of the color drains away."
Writing for The Washington Post, reviewer Ron Charles seemed admiring of rather than enthusiastic about "The Lacuna." He called it "a novel of capital-L Liberal ideas – workers' rights, sexual equality, artistic freedom -- the kind of progressive causes that Kingsolver tries to encourage with her Bellwether Prize for socially responsible fiction." The book's conclusion, he says, "recites a predictable Red Scare story we've heard many times before."
The Orange Prize is awarded to the best work of fiction written in English by a female author. In addition to "Wolf Hall," this year's nominees included Lorrie Moore for "A Gate at the Stairs," Rosie Alison for "The Very Thought of You," Attica Locke for "Black Water Rising," and Monique Roffey for "The White Woman on the Green Bicyle."
The Orange Prize winner receives a 30,000 pound ($45,000) prize.
Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor's book editor.