You see, I didn't realize until I was already finishing the book that The Bean Trees was Barbara Kingsolver's first published novel (the first publication was in 1988). Maybe that's why I've come away from this book with mixed feelings--or maybe it's simply something about the approach?
All that I had previously read from Barbara Kingsolver was her 2007 non-fiction book, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. I really enjoyed this one, and while I may not have agreed with every word she said, mostly I liked that she encouraged people to form informed opinions/stances about food, whether or not those opinions were identical to her own. Ever since reading that book a little over a year ago, I've wanted to finally delve into some of her fiction. So I picked up a secondhand copy of The Bean Trees as a starting place.
I didn't realize that the book takes place largely in Tucson--you know, the deeply southern city in Arizona. Honestly, I've hardly spent any time in Tucson, or even anywhere south of the Phoenix area. But I was excited, at first, about this involvement of Arizona in the book. And then I grew slightly disappointed. There are descriptions of some of the magic of Arizona's natural beauty and presence, but there is also some of the usual disillusionment, disdain, and inability to mesh with it all. And I understand that there are undesirable parts to this state (and that Tucson is very, very different to where I live in Arizona), but I still found myself wishing for a different portrayal of the land. The desert is an aspect of the world's atmosphere at large; everything is a part of the world, and everything has its significance.
With that rambling (for which I apologize) over, let me continue into the book. Our main character, Taylor, is from Kentucky; she drives away to get out of her little town and just happens on Tucson. And so, naturally, certain of the portrayals of the desert are simply those of an outsider. Her journey is basically one toward social understanding. She starts simply, with her own small-yet-significant-to-her problems, and then slowly learns more about other people's lives. As she does this, she more and more often makes the decision to help others. So you could say it's a story about love, friendship, family, and social awareness. Maybe ethics.
All of this is good. The story was sweet and touching at times, sometimes innocent and sometimes sad. It was good. But I think I was expecting it to be better.
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