Book Re-Reviewed: The Bean Trees, by Barbara Kingsolver
It wasn't until I was reading The Bean Trees last week for my book club that I realized how long it's been since I've read this book. I first read The Bean Trees when I was fifteen, and I re-read it once or twice more in high school. But due to my super-love for the book's "sequel," Pigs in Heaven (which I re-read once every couple years), I hadn't picked up Kingsolver's debut in at least seven years. Reading it now, I couldn't believe how much of the book I had forgotten.
The Bean Trees is one of those books that I'd call a "crowd-pleaser." It works for die-hard literary fiction fans as much as it works for casual readers. I think Kingsolver has one of the most readable writing styles out there. You can sit and read her for hours without even realizing it. I finished this particular novel in just a couple days for this very reason.
At the beginning of the book, we meet Taylor Greer (not her real name, by the way), a young woman who's determined to get out of her small Kentucky town. She buys a car and heads west. She doesn't have a particular plan or even an end goal, but that doesn't matter because nothing goes quite right anyway. She gets stuck with a broken little girl who she takes in as her own, and then she gets stuck in Tucson, Arizona. In Tucson, she makes friends and finds her inner strength. It's a pretty simple story, but Kingsolver fits in some big themes about immigration and amnesty law, friendship, and making family where you can get it. It ended up being the perfect book to read in time for Mother's Day, too. The literary world is obsessed with stories of fathers, but The Bean Trees is a love letter to mothers.
There were two things that stood out to me on reading this book for the first time in years. For one, I had forgotten how big a role unrequited love plays in this story. Taylor harbors a major crush for a married immigrant named Estevan. This whole plotline had completely escaped my memory for some reason, so the lovely way Kingsolver handles it was a wonderful surprise for me as a reader. Secondly, I am glad I read this book as someone who is significantly older and more experienced than I was the first time around. As a a teenager, I remember looking up to the character of Taylor and admiring her. Now, I understand her. Taylor Greer has always been one of my all-time favorite literary characters, and reading this book a second time made me appreciate what Kinsolver did with her just that much more. She's not particularly smart or talented or special in any way, but she's strong and funny and very human. It's reassuring to know there's such well-written female characters out there, as lately I find myself really annoyed by 90% of the female characters out there in all genres of fiction.
If I had to pick just one Barbara Kingsolver book to take on a desert island with me, I'd still reach for Pigs in Heaven. After all, this is the book that features Jax Thibodeaux. But when it comes to introducing Kingsolver to new readers, The Bean Trees is where I'll point them.
Note: Here's an open letter I wrote to Kingsolver about my wishes for another book about Taylor, Turtle. and crew. I told you I was a fan.