The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver
I enjoy Barbara Kingsolver and as a result was very curious to read this, especially when seeing that it would deal with Frida Kahlo among other things. It was a weird book for me to get into . . . I liked it but it definitely almost felt like two separate novels, and I'll explain why as I go.
The novel is set up as a diary entries and letters with a few pages of explanations inserted throughout by the person (V.B.) who decided to compile Harrion Shepherd's personal papers into a book. V.B. explains that Shepherd has always had a tendency to see himself on the outskirts and as more of an observer rather than as part of the action. In fact, even though the first half to two thirds of the novel are comprised entirely of his journal entries, the word "I" rarely appears except when in quoted dialogue. Despite the fact that I was forewarned, I think this may one of the reasons I had a hard time getting into this part of the novel while it might have been easier if it had simply been told from the third person. Even when he addresses his emotions or speaks of himself, he tends to do it in the third person so the novel seems oddly removed at times. The first half of the novel is mostly set in Mexico where Shepherd grows up with his slightly erratic mother after she leaves his American dad. When young, he makes friends with his mother's boyfriend's cook, thus acquiring a skill that will lead him to first be a plaster mixer and then a cook for Diego Rivera, and by extension, Frida Kahlo, "the Aztec princess." Surrounded by these colorful characters, and eventually Lev Trotsky, Shepherd documents their lives and passions rather than his own. Despite the fact that the diary seems somewhat emotionally removed, it is still obvious to see how Shepherd, or Soli as Frida calls him, feels about people based on his descriptions, so that his crush on one of Trotsky's secretary's is obvious due to his Adonis-like descriptions.
After Trotsky's assassination by Stalinist, Shepherd seizes to write a journal, and moves to the States. In the States, he becomes a famous novelist, and most of this section of the novel is comprised of letters written to friends, especially Frida, random thoughts he wrote down without being a regular diary, and newspaper clippings. As much as I loved reading about Frida and his descriptions of her volatile nature, and how everyone fell under her thrall, I preferred this part of the novel, or at least the voice . . . I liked hearing Shepherd actually talk about himself a little bit in letters rather than alluding to himself as "the secretary," etc. It wasn't even necessarily that he was talking about himself more but since it was letters, his tone was more conversational. The writing throughout the whole novel is beautiful and there are quite a few different sentences and paragraphs of great descriptions (then again, there were also a few that went on too long, especially in the diaries which may have been why that part felt slow to me on occasion).
Barbara Kingsolver explains in one of interviews in the back that she wanted to explore the relationship between art and politics, and especially within America - she used Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera as a contrast to America. As she says, in Mexico and elsewhere in the world, political artists are celebrated and politics and art seems a natural mix (Toni Morrison would agree). In the States, however, she believes that the public wants their artists to be apolitical and not be part of a movement or a cause. As a result, I definitely understand why she chose to set up the novel the way she did, and Shepherd's background as a cook and typist for communists in Mexico made the fact that he would be investigated during the era of McCarthyism all the more believable but in ways it also felt like Kingsolver was interested in Kahlo and Rivera, and McCarthyism and came up with Shepherd as a way to connect the two and I'm not sure if it quite worked for me. I think it might be the tonal shift more than the topic that makes it seem like she took two almost unrelated stories and wove them together, though.
Some other themes that I thought were of interest, and probably also meant to reflect on current times, was the portrayal of the media. I know I have seen complaints and lamentations online about the current state of the media and investigative journalism, and the fact that journalist seem to simply report what people say rather than research it and show the viewer/reader how statements certain political figures are making are false or misguided . . . since they simply get repeated, these statements are accepted as fact by the public. However, while I share this sentiment, I'm not sure when the glory days of investigative reporting were because all the newspapers and media sources in this novel do the same thing in the '30s and '40s and invent a few facts as well. The other theme that I believe was paralleled today was the way Kingsolver described both the McCarthy investigations and the hysteria and fear caused by the idea of Communism even though no one actually really knew what communism was, just that they were against.
Overall, definitely an enjoyable novel, and it is obvious that Kingsolver is also using the past to make statements about the present. The first part had a variety of colorful characters but in ways I liked the more intimate last half better. Basically, there were things I liked in each part of the novel; I just felt like the Mexico section went on maybe a little too long.