Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 812

When The Bean Trees was published in 1988, critics received it enthusiastically. Early reviews praised Kingsolver's character development, her ear for voices and dialogue, her portrayal of friendship and community as necessary for survival, and her ability to comment on serious social issues without allowing those issues to overwhelm the story.

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A 1988 review of The Bean Trees in Publishers Weekly called the novel "an overwhelming delight, as random and unexpected as real life." Focusing in part on the character of Taylor, the review referred to her "unmistakable voice" as "whimsical, yet deeply insightful," and it described the novel as "a marvelous affirmation of risk-taking, commitment, and everyday miracles."

Karen FitzGerald, in her 1988 review of the novel in Ms., called The Bean Trees "an entertaining and inspiring first novel." She judged the novel's strength as coming from its characters. She perceived Taylor—and the rest of the characters in The Bean Trees—as remaining "firmly at the novel's center," in spite of "the large sweep of [its] canvas." FitzGerald asserted that in spite of the novel's strong political views, Kingsolver's characters are vivid and believable enough that they never become "mouthpieces for the party line," causing politics to overshadow plot. She praised Kingsolver's portrayal of women's friendships and placed her within a tradition of women writers—such as Doris Lessing—who have written about women's friendships and communities as being "havens in a hard world."

In his 1988 review in The New York Times Book Review, Jack Butler stated admiringly that "Barbara Kingsolver can write" and viewed The Bean Trees "an accomplished first novel" that "is as richly connected as a fine poem but reads like realism." But while he praised Kingsolver's clarity and artistry, Butler had reservations about her character development and her skill at creating a plot. Unlike FitzGerald, Butler did not think the characters are wholly believable, seeing them "purified to types" as the novel progresses, and thus lacking depth and color. He was impressed, overall, with Kingsolver's ability to write, but maintained that the novel's problems come from "overmanipulation," or Kingsolver's attempt to make things happen.

Another early reviewer, Diane Manual, wrote in The Christian Science Monitor in 1988 that the novel is based upon "character development at its richest, with Taylor growing from happy-go-lucky hillbilly to caring friend and parent." Manual pointed to Taylor as "something that's increasingly hard to find today—a character to believe in and laugh with and admire" and called the novel a "neatly constructed tale." Like FitzGerald and Publishers Weekly, Manual saw the "wonderfully outrageous characters" as being the strongest element of the novel, but added that The Bean Trees is not "merely laugh-a-minute fluff." The novel's political views, according to Manual, serve to deepen the characters, particularly Taylor, as she "gradually learns about the suffering some of her newfound friends have endured [and] begins to make her own significant commitment to protecting their hard-won freedom."

Margaret Randall, writing in 1988 in The Women's Review of Books, admired the way The Bean Trees balances humor with serious topics. She considered the novel "hilariously funny" in spite of its being "a story about racism, sexism and dignity." Like other critics, Randall pointed to Kingsolver's ability to create realistic, human characters. "It's one of those old-fashioned stories ... in which there are heroines and anti-heroines, heroes and anti-heroes, ordinary humans all. They go places and do things and where they go and what they do makes sense for them...and for us." Randall discussed Kingsolver's treatment of the theme of invasion—"the sexual invasion of a child's body and the political invasion of a nation's sovereignty"—and said that although not new in literature, this theme in Kingsolver's novel "occupies a new territory, that of the commonplace, mostly undramatic, story, told and lived by commonplace people, most of them women."

More recently, assessments of The Bean Trees have examined Kingsolver's first novel alongside some of her later works and found trends. In 1993, Michael Neill compared Kingsolver's first three novels and wrote in People Weekly that while women's relationships are central to each of these novels—including The Bean Trees—the role of male characters is typically insignificant. Neill saw Kingsolver as writing about a different kind of American West—more focused on women than on men—than traditionally Western American literature.

In a 1995 article in Journal of American Culture, Maureen Ryan derided Kingsolver's first three novels, including The Bean Trees, for being conservative at heart in spite of their apparent "political correctness." She asserted that in spite of their stand against human rights violations, they also exhibit an unrealistic and thus dangerous belief that devotion to family and friends can make things all better. Ryan perceived this conservatism cloaked in political correctness as being the reason for Kingsolver's popularity: readers can feel good about reading a socially conscious novel while feeling secure about the novel's underlying message of traditional values.

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