Barbara Kingsolver won this year's Orange Prize for English-language fiction by women. But it wasn't an easy decision, chief judge Daisy Goodwin told the press. According to Goodwin there were three novels viewed as "hot favorites" by the judges and choosing among was like "choosing between your three beautiful daughters."
These three titles – one by a British author, two by Americans– certainly make for an eclectic grouping.
A Monitor review of "A Gate at the Stairs" called the book "a sharply observed coming-of-age novel about Tassie Keltjin, a bright Midwestern farm girl for whom college offers a liberating taste of the cosmopolitan." Tassie is a precocious naive who "might not be quite as sophisticated as she thinks reading Sylvia Plath has made her." But there is nothing naive about the story built around her. The review notes that Moore "has been masquerading for more than a decade as one of the finest short story writers in North America, when in fact, she’s an even better novelist."
"Wolf Hall" was reviewed in the Monitor late last year. We called this story of Thomas Cromwell, adviser to Henry VIII, "a drama with a surprisingly contemporary feel." This "portrait of a scheming brawler who pulled himself from the lower rungs of Tudor England all the way up to its chief palaces" may tax us non-Brits who don't know all the history, but "fortunately, the interest quotient of the plot easily outweighs any irritation with that challenge," making this novel an "ambitious" but "rewarding" read.
The Monitor's review of "The Lacuna" calls the novel an exploration of "gaps and the way they can alter people’s lives." Protagonist Harrison William Shepherd is a "perpetual outsider who essentially raised himself" in both Mexico and the US. Shepherd goes on to live in Mexico City in the 1930s, mixing and mingling with muralist Diego Rivera, his wife painter Frida Kahlo, and Russian exile Leon Trotsky. This chunk of the story is "the heart of 'The Lacuna,' " and "among the most compelling writing of Kingsolver’s career." Later, as Shepherd settles in the US and tangles with the House Un-American Activities committee, the book is "witty and intelligent but also a tad preachy," lacking "the emotional resonance that came before." Overall, however, this novel stands as the "most ambitious" of Kingsolver's career.
It's only too easy to imagine a jury splitting over a choice like this.
Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor's book editor.