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Retro Friday Review: Animal Dreams by Barbara Kingsolver

Retro Friday is a weekly meme hosted here at Angieville and focuses on reviewing books from the past. This can be an old favorite, an under-the-radar book you think deserves more attention, something woefully out of print, etc.

I'm a sucker for reading other people's favorite books of all time. When someone tells me a certain book is one of the books of their life, I get this pressing urge to run out and secure a copy. It generally doesn't matter what genre or style of book it is. I think this is mostly because I know what it means to care so much about a book you have to have it nearby at all times. Maybe you own more than one copy so that if you lend one out you've still got a spare...just in case. Maybe you can't remember a time when you hadn't read and loved that book, those characters. I know what that feels like. And because I have such tender feelings for certain books, I want to have read the books others feel the same way about. It's almost always a rewarding experience. One of the most memorable of these times happened several years ago when a good friend of mine on Readerville was talking about what a superb novel Barbara Kingsolver's Animal Dreams was. I had read one Kingsolver book at that point--The Bean Trees--and, while I appreciated parts of it, my overall reaction was pretty lackluster. So it wasn't with a lot of excitement that I approached Kingsolver's second novel. 

Codi Noline thought she'd left Grace, Arizona once and for all when she and her little sister Hallie escaped and went away to college. It's been ten years since then and Codi and Hallie have traveled farther than she ever expected. Even after medical school and several stints as a world traveler, she's never found a place she could call home And yet, when the call comes in that her father has Alzheimer's and can't live alone anymore and Codi returns home to look after him, she finds to her chagrin that she hasn't moved that far beyond her childhood after all. Back in Grace, she stays in her old friend Emelina's guest house and takes a job teaching biology at the local high school. With her platinum blonde hair and her checkered history with this town, she stands out like a sore thumb and she's all but sure it was a colossal mistake coming home this way. But as she exchanges letters with Hallie, deals with her deteriorating father, and strikes up a tentative friendship with Loyd Peregrina--an Apache railroad brakeman she once knew--Codi's perspective is challenged on so many levels and the lines between memory and truth and past and present are blurred so far it's all she can do to hang on to the here and now. 

Here are the opening lines from Codi's perspective:
I am the sister who didn't go to war. I can only tell you my side of the story. Hallie is the one who went south, with her pickup truck and her crop-disease books and her heart dead set on a new world.

Who knows why people do what they do? I stood on a battleground once too, but it was forty years after the fighting was all over: northern France, in 1982, in a field where the farmers' plow blades kept turning up the skeletons of cows. They were the first casualties of the German occupation. In the sudden quiet after the evacuation the cows had died by the thousands in those pastures, slowly, lowing with pain from unmilked udders. But now the farmers who grew sugar beets in those fields were blessed, they said, by the bones. The soil was rich in calcium.
I knew right away I liked Codi. I felt sorry for her and I wanted to know her better. By the end, I liked her even more, as though I understood her because I had followed her home. Kingsolver's storytelling is breathlessly evocative. I constantly found myself gasping at the way she wields the written word to move her readers and wrap them up in a vision of the world the way it is and the way it could be. Halfway through my first read, I couldn't take it any longer. I quietly returned my library copy and fled to the bookstore to buy one of my own. I had to own this book and I wasn't even finished yet! Truthfully, Animal Dreams took me completely by surprise. It had me by the throat with its motherless sisters who want to save the world, its handmade peacock pinatas, its dying town, and its gorgeous, gorgeous longing. The story of a girl searching to belong, of a town struggling to survive, and the intricate myths and culture surrounding them all completely engulfed me. To say nothing of the quiet, intense love story winding its way through the beautiful prose. There were so many other passages I wanted to quote for you but in the end I couldn't take away that opportunity of discovering them for yourself. It's just too special to intrude on in that way. When I think of those few perfect books, this one always comes to mind. I'm so glad Zanna sang its praises so emphatically. I'm so glad I listened. Because it's one of the books of my life now, too. I like having it nearby at all times. I have a lending copy...just in case. And I have trouble remembering a time I didn't know and love Codi, Loyd, and all of Grace. 

Retro Friday Roundup
The YA YA YAs review The Seer and the Sword by Victoria Hanley


  1. I had to read this book for my ENG102 class and I wasn't looking forward to it. It was not my normal type of read, and not a book I would have picked up on my own. By the first chapter I was hooked and in love. I can't express how much I love this book. LOVE. I too went and purchased it after I returned it to the library because I had to own it. Everyone, this is a must read.

  2. Tiah, see? I knew I would find someone else who felt the same way about this amazing book. I knew I wouldn't be able to adequately express my feelings in this review either. And you're absolutely right--a MUST read.

  3. See, totally have never been motivated to read a Kingsolver book, but you guys....alright, alright. I'll put it on my tbr list. :)

  4. I stumbled across your post because I have a search set up for Barbara Kingsolver .... "Animal Dreams" has been my all-time favorite book since it came out. It's so beautiful, so rich. It's inspired me in so many ways.

  5. I love Barbara Kingsolver, but I've never been able to get through this book. Once I started reading it on a road trip, and I overidentified with Codi, and I got too emotionally involved and abandoned it at a rest stop in Alabama. Which is something that has hardly ever happened to me before.

  6. Raspberry, this is the one my friend. ;)

    Patia, how lovely. It most certainly is beautiful, rich, and inspiring. Well put.

    Jenny, that is one good story, I have to tell you. Abandoned at a rest stop in Alabama. And I can totally understand that reaction if you overidentify with Codi. What is your favorite Kingsolver?

  7. um um um what? so you havent read The POisonwood Bible?! Its ah-mazing!


  8. Aimee, *ducks head* I know! There's no excuse for me except to say that I love ANIMAL DREAMS so much I'm afraid it won't measure up. Even though I KNOW how ah-mazing it's supposed to be! lol.

  9. I think "The Poisonwood Bible" is wonderful, but it's much darker and more complex than most of her other writing.

    Barbara Kingsolver's versatility never ceases to amaze me -- fiction, nonfiction, poetry -- and in a variety of styles and voices.


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