Barbara Kingsolver’s The Lacuna, published in 2009 by Harper, is her first novel since Prodigal Summer (2000) and her nonfiction piece Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life.
The story covers three decades and includes many different elements: congressional transcripts, newspaper articles, book reviews, letters, diary entries and memoir, and archival notes. The subjects of these elements are some of the most controversial historical figures of the twentieth century.
The main character in the novel is Harrison Shepherd, a novelist who writes romantic adventures. Shepherd is born in Washington, D.C. When he is thirteen, he is in Mexico with his mother, who has abandoned America and is romantically involved with a right-wing businessman. Shepherd begins reading Mexican history and adventure novels. He also begins journaling, which makes up part of the novel.
Shepherd gets a job as a cook with Diego Rivera. Rivera and his wife, Frida Kahlo, are brilliant and passionate artists. Shepherd becomes a ready listener for Frida as she shares her frustrations. Frida and Rivera are also friends with Leon Trotsky, and the novel provides a look into the Russian Revolution. Stalin’s death squads are seeking to kill both Trotsky and his wife. Shepherd helps Trotsky by typing up his writings each day as he is forced to stay as a shut-in inside the Rivera-Kahlo home.
The second part of The Lacuna takes place in a small town in North Carolina in the 1940s. Shepherd has secured success as a writer and has many fans. He has a relationship with Violet Brown, his forty-six-year-old secretary. She helps to preserve the diary entries and newspaper clippings that he has gathered over the years to safeguard his memory. The reader learns that Shepherd is a very private man who suffers within the confines of his fame. As the novel progresses, Shepherd garners the interest of J. Edgar Hoover and becomes a victim of the Red Scare.
Critics praise the breadth and ambition of The Lacuna. Casting light over a dark period in American history, Kingsolver offers compelling characters and insight into how public opinion can shape a person's life.