Larissa's Reviews > The Bean Trees

The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver
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Apr 13, 07

bookshelves: 2007, usa, southwest
Read in April, 2007

My stepmother was the type of woman who painted the walls in our house eighteen different colors and wore turquoise-encrusted Kokopelli jewelry to show how in tune she was with the local culture. She hung Frida Khalo prints on the bedroom walls and thought that speaking ‘Food Spanish’ to waiters made her nearly fluent. She also compelled my sister and me to read a lot of Tony Hillerman paperbacks and other ‘local literature,’ which I am now almost positive included The Bean Trees. Because after reading the first chapter of this book, I got the strangest sense of de ja vu.

This is probably appropriate in its way, given that the reason I picked it up in the first place was to suppress a bit of homesickness. Because a couple times a year—amidst the April snowstorms and one too many guys on the subway who splay themselves across two seats while playing audio-enabled Snood on their cell phones—I start pining for the homeland. I turned to this book hoping to get a good dose of Tucsonan flavor to keep me going until I had the time and money to go home and remember why I left in the first place.

I have to say, though, The Bean Trees didn’t really do the trick. Because even though I appreciate details about the Sun Tran bus line and the way it smells in the desert when it rains (the thing I miss the most about Tucson), there’s more to invoking a landscape than just listing of things that are really there. A good book about New York, for instance, isn’t good because it mentions the Empire State Building or talks about people taking taxis. It is a major (and frequent) misstep in novels to try and just be factually accurate about a place, without ever getting into how it really feels there.

To be fair, though, while the landscape wasn’t terribly reminiscent of Arizona, the writing style really was in its own (probably accidental) way. Because Ms. Kingsolver really illuminates that deep Southwestern flare for ‘characters’ and ‘culture’—a fondness for highlighting how darn quirky desert folk really are, and a gringo’s deep and abiding love of all things latino.

(As a side note, though: if we’re going to just start dropping real places into the book for authenticity, I would have swapped the ‘Jesus Is Lord’ tire place for the church that has ‘Happiness is Submission to God’ painted on it—a slogan which often gets altered to ‘Happiness is Submission to Godzilla!’ by persistent neighborhood delinquents…)
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Comments (showing 1-5 of 5) (5 new)

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Christine Yes, yes, isn't that on Speedway? Just past the 7-11 and the DM Credit Union? Can't remember but I think so. There's no way not to get homesick for it once in awhile.

Kelly Just saying, the style of a book is almost never accidental. It takes a ton of effort to arrange words so that they feel just right. And in my opinion - I'm not from Tucson, but I've been scampering around throughout the Southwest my whole life - she does get it just right.
Also, although this is unrelated, there are cases in which an author can highly distort a real-world setting to make a point.

Larissa Hi, Kelly-

In fairness, I didn't say that The Beantrees style was accidental--just that it didn't work for me. Of course the writing process is extremely difficult, but that doesn't mean that the results of one's writing will appeal to everyone.

I know other people who grew up or live in Tucson now who, like you, think that Kingsolver cast an accurate portrait of the city, and that makes sense. We're all going to have different experiences in a place, so it make sense that they evoke different feelings for us.

Kingsolver's spent a lot of time in Tucson, so I know she's familiar with the city. Sure, she has the right to adjust and change things about Tucson to write her book. But as I said in my review, I actually feel like she stuck a little too much to the factual parts of the city, without evoking the 'feeling' that I remember and miss and always have when I go back to Arizona.

message 4: by Kelly (last edited Apr 12, 2010 04:10PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Kelly Erm... "while the landscape wasn't reminiscent of Arizona, the writing style really was in its own (probably accidental) way." I do get your point, though. :) Hope I didn't seem argumentative.

Larissa Ah, you got me there. On my re-read of this, I missed the bit about Kingsolver's "accidental" verisimilitude. What I meant was that I thought that the part that seemed relatively "Tucsonan" to me was not a part that I thought the author was actually trying to make authentic. Given the way I worded it, though, I can see how you read it.

At any rate, it's a very subjective reaction--what with the reminiscing about my family life. It's certainly not one of my more analytical reviews.

Thanks for your messages and happy reading.

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