This follow-up to the Kentucky-born Barbara Kingsolver's acclaimed family epic, The Poisonwood Bible, at first appears to be a much less ambitious work. Set in a tiny farming community at the foot of a mountain in southern Appalachia, this novel takes place over a single summer, rather than over 30 years in the Belgian Congo. But Prodigal Summer's narrower focus belies its larger aim, which is no less than to illustrate the complex chain of relationships in nature.
Three narrative strands are gradually interwoven. In the first, "Predators", a fortysomething forest ranger, Deanna, tracks the mountain in search of an elusive coyote family. She admires and protects these creatures, which local farmers are prepared to shoot on sight. But when a romantic stranger appears on "her" mountain, Deanna's reclusive wariness dissolves into lust.
In the second story, tagged "Moth Love", a lonely young widow, Lusa, struggles to find a place for herself in the tobacco-farming family into which she married. A scholarly entomologist from the city, she must overcome the mistrust of the locals, who deride her as a "Lexington girl who got down on all fours to name the insects in the parlor rather than squashing them".
The most comic part of the book, "Old Chestnuts", shows the ongoing wrangling of two elderly neighbours: Nannie, the keeper of an organic apple orchard, and Garnett, a former farmer whose pet project is to reintroduce the extinct chestnut tree to America. His wife has been dead eight years, and he has long disowned his alcoholic, womanising son, who figures in the novel only by his absence.
The "prodigal" of the title is rich in meaning, signifying the vividly evoked abundance of nature and the darker connotation of the biblical story. While Garnett and his son may never be reconciled, the moral overtones of the tale are still strong.
All three of Kingsolver's female protagonists preach the same message: the importance of reconciliation, humility and mutual dependence between human beings - a lesson learnt, in dif- ferent ways, over these summer months. And although Kingsolver risks hammering home the theme, her characters are believable, never merely mouthpieces for her own views.
Above all, Prodigal Summer is an elegant hymn to nature, exhorting us to pay attention to minute details that "too often go unnoticed", and drawing us back into a both intellectual and sensual relationship with the natural world.