Barbara Kingsolver's reputation achieved something like critical (and commercial) mass with "The Poisonwood Bible" (1998). Her three earlier novels, "The Bean Trees" (1988), "Animal Dreams" (1990) and "Pigs in Heaven" (1993), built a considerable readership, particularly among women, as offbeat, eco-feminist romances, and Kingsolver could have gone on repeating the elements that made those books popular: independent females vaguely adrift in the U.S. Southwest with strong views on such matters as honoring Native American rights and sheltering Latin American political refugees. But she extended her range dramatically in "Poisonwood," a long, incantatory meditation, filtered through the memories of an American mother and her four daughters, on the evils of Western colonialism in Africa. Because of its subject and geopolitical sweep, the novel attracted admiring comparisons to the works of Joseph Conrad and Nadine Gordimer.
With "Poisonwood" still riding near the top of paperback charts, thanks at least in part to its June selection by the Oprah Book Club, here comes Kingsolver's new novel, "Prodigal Summer" (HarperCollins; 444 pages; $26), which is something of a return to the author's earlier form. It is an altogether lighter and more easygoing affair than its immediate predecessor. Its setting has narrowed from the vast heart of Africa to a mountain and valley in southern Appalachia over the course of a single hot and unusually rainy summer. Its subject is not the clash of ideologies but the rhythms of nature and man's misguided attempts to interfere with them.
Yet in "Prodigal Summer" there is, despite the relaxed tone, Kingsolver's by now trademark didacticism. She does not subscribe to the view that novelists with a message ought to send a telegram. It can be no accident that three of the four main characters in the novel have worked as teachers in the past and aren't at all shy about giving lectures.
Deanna Wolfe, 47, lives alone in a cabin up on Zebulon Mountain performing a "hybrid job" for the National Park Service and the Forest Service. The appearance of a handsome drifter named Eddie Bondo unsettles her sexually "A pulse of electricity ran up the insides of her thighs like lightning ripping up two trees at once, leaving her to smolder or maybe burst into flames" and disturbs her in another way. She has discovered a nest of coyotes on the mountain, the first sighting in the region in decades, and Bondo, who grew up on a sheep ranch in Wyoming, hates coyotes.
Meanwhile, down in the valley, the newly widowed Lusa Maluf Landowski "My mom's parents were Palestinians, and my dad's were Jews from Poland" struggles with the farm her husband has left her and tries to think of something profitable to grow besides tobacco. She complains to a sister-in-law, "We're sitting on some of the richest dirt on this planet, and I'm going to grow drugs instead of food?" And on farms nearby, Garnett Walker III, nearly 80, a widower for eight years, maintains a long-running battle with his neighbor Nannie Rawley, 75, over her refusal to use pesticides on her apple orchards, thereby inundating, he is convinced, his land with bugs.
Will the coyotes survive, the farm be freed from its toxic crop, the insects be allowed to regulate their own population balances? Did God make little green organic apples? Kingsolver doesn't bother much with suspense in unfolding these matters; right thinking may seldom triumph in the real world, but it's her novel and she'll run it the way she sees fit. Her heroines are genuinely interesting, however, even when they're patiently teaching lessons to the benighted, and the author sometimes pokes a little gentle fun at their high-mindedness. When Deanna laboriously captures a moth in her cabin and steps outside to liberate it, a bird darts down and grabs a free meal.
Males have not, as a rule, joined Kingsolver's fan clubs, and this novel suggests a reason: They are seldom the central figures in the authorĺs world. Although Deanna and Lusa never meet, they share subterranean female experiences. Both recognize that men are attracted to them, unknowingly, because of pheromones; both ovulate in synch with the full moon. On a steamy, "oversexed" Fourth of July evening, Lusa feels her widow's grief subsiding as her male in-laws play with fireworks: "We're only what we are: a woman cycling with the moon, and a tribe of men trying to have sex with the sky."