Short form: bat-shit crazy Baptist preacher Nathan Price takes his family (wife and 4 daughters) to the Congo, arriving a few months before the election which results in independence from Belgium and the election of Patrice Lumumba, followed by civil unrest (secession of Katanga), etc. Other people attempt to discourage them from going as missionaries, attempt to get them to leave shortly after Independence, cut off their funds. To no avail; in fact, they stay beyond their one year plan.
The structure of the book is each chapter is told from the perspective of one of the women/girls (mother Oleanna, Rachel, Leah, Adah, Ruth May), some told contemporary to the events described; some told from the tale's future looking back on the present which is then the past. The language used within each chapter represents, to some degree, each character's capacity for language, altho it varies as to whether one should interpret it as written language or oral. There are some other structural motifs: the things they carried (so we have a parallel to the Vietnam book/movie); sections of chapters marked off as "Genesis", "Exodus", etc.
Major themes include: colonialism straight-up, and also as a metaphor for Nathan colonizing his wife's body/life and the bodies/lives of his daughters; adaptation (or lack thereof, as the case may be); the falsity of language (intentional and otherwise) as compared to other forms of knowledge.
Not to put too fine a point on it: this is _literary_ fiction. Seriously.
I found the book Very Frustrating. It is well-constructed. I didn't have any particular trouble understanding the characters (all too many of them seem plucked from various sections of my extended family). Kingsolver's depiction of Oleanna is particularly on target, right down to her insistence that her decisions, her life are/were her own, that she was not pre-programmed to pick an abuser, that Nathan was fine until the whole head injury, etc. It took me a while to understand _how_ on target this depiction was, because it immediately got my hackles up: why do people who are abused persist in insisting that this abuser/situation is somehow new, startling, unique, unexpected, blah, blah, blah? (As near as I can tell without having actually _read_ Anna Karenina, Lev Tolstoy got it _exactly backwards_: all unhappy families are the same; happy families are where the diversity is at. Possibly this is The Theme of the novel, and I've just demonstrated, once again, my vast illiteracy.) Honestly, I did not even have any particular Issues with this book.
Name me one good reason I should read this stuff? These people are miserable and reading about them is No Fun At All. I didn't feel like I was learning a lot (altho I could readily identify several things -- minor and significant -- that I learned in the course of reading the first half), or at least not enough to justify putting up with this crew.
Doctor, it hurts when I do this.
Well, stop doing that.
Example of a minor thing learned: possible mistranslation (is it camel? or coarse yarn) in the rich man-eye of the needle story.
Example of a significant thing learned: If you had major damage before The Age of Reason (neglect, abandonment, abuse, bad juju, etc.), you'll probably (a) repeat and (b) deny that there was any major damage. If you ever notice a problem and work to do something about it, mid-20s would be precocious; 30s more likely. I _should_ have put this together (I had all the pieces, between personal experience and the hilarious Adam Carolla on LoveLine with his impatience with woman callers with little-girl voices who insisted that nothing bad had happened when they were young, but when pressed about the age they were vocalizing, instantly regaled listeners with some horrific tale). But I had not. I was all primed and ready to go with this insight, after Nora Roberts' Three Sisters Trilogy, but Oleanna Price really brought that puppy home.