In my page about the history of romance fiction, with its formula of ‘boy meets girl, their relationship encounters problems but everything ends up happily’, I noted that after a period where it rightly had a bad name, romance fiction now seemed capable of new development. That might have been a bit optimistic, since one of my examples of regeneration was A.S. Byatt’s Possession: a romance, published as long ago as 1990, and the other was Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary, published in 1996. This latter was in any case hardly ‘new’, as it is modelled on that great romance, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Certainly plenty of romances have been written recently, but few that I know of have revitalised the genre.
One that perhaps does so is Prodigal Summer (2000). There are three different, but linked stories in the novel, only one of which could be said to fit the romance formula. But the underlying theme is the drive of all creatures and plants to find a mate or in some way to contribute to reproducing their species. Prodigal summer is ‘the season of extravagant procreation. It could wear out everything in its path with passionate excesses, but nothing alive with wings or a heart or a seed curled into itself in the ground could resist welcoming it back when it came’. Romance is an expression of the human subset of this drive.
The first of the stories, told in the chapters entitled Predators, concerns Deanne Wolfe, an ecologist in her forties who has chosen to live a solitary existence in a mountainous national park in West Virginia where she observes nature and acts as a park ranger. Her dream is that she will be able to authenticate her sighting of a coyote family she thinks may have moved back into the region from which coyotes were exterminated by hunters. Then she meets Eddie Bondo, a hunter by profession. Girl meets boy, there are obstacles to their relationship, which are (sort of) overcome, for a (sort of) happy ending.
The second of the stories, told in the chapters entitled Moth Love, concerns Lusa, an entomologist newly married to Cole, a farmer in the valley at the foot of the mountains. Her story is not a romance; it deals with death, the other part of the ecological cycle, though there is also regeneration in it.
The third of the stories, told in the chapters entitled Old Chestnuts, concerns two bickering elderly neighbours, Nannie Rawley, who farms an organic orchard, and Garnett Walker, a devotee of chemical sprays. While they don’t find romance, it isn’t really giving anything away to say that they finally find friendship.
One of the pleasures of the book is the ways in which these stories are linked, just as ecosystems, and small farming communities, are linked. Each story contains echoes of the others, and all contain echoes of the wider ecological statement that Kingsolver is making. What happens when a predator is removed from the landscape? What happens when a loved person is removed? What happens when someone or something from outside is introduced into to an organic system? Are the changes always good or always bad? When are old ways better than new ways? None of these links or echoes or the questions they raise are forced; they arise simply as part of the story.
Like the prodigal summer itself, Kingsolver’s language is often lush, particularly in the Predator chapters, and I sometimes found them a bit heavy going. But it was worth persisting. Lusa’s story is told with a lighter touch, and Nannie’s and Garnett’s interactions are at times positively funny.
Kingsolver rightly prides herself on ‘trying something completely new with each book’, so don’t look to her for another romance. She probably didn’t mean this novel to be one. But if you view humans as part of an ecological system, the attraction between men and women – romance – is something you can’t avoid.