Friday, April 19, 2019

Unsheltered - Barbara Kingsolver

Summary: The New York Times bestselling author of Flight Behavior, The Lacuna, and The Poisonwood Bible and recipient of numerous literary awards—including the National Humanities Medal, the Dayton Literary Peace Prize, and the Orange Prize—returns with a timely novel that interweaves past and present to explore the human capacity for resiliency and compassion in times of great upheaval.

Willa Knox has always prided herself on being the embodiment of responsibility for her family. Which is why it’s so unnerving that she’s arrived at middle age with nothing to show for her hard work and dedication but a stack of unpaid bills and an inherited brick home in Vineland, New Jersey, that is literally falling apart. The magazine where she worked has folded, and the college where her husband had tenure has closed. The dilapidated house is also home to her ailing and cantankerous Greek father-in-law and her two grown children: her stubborn, free-spirited daughter, Tig, and her dutiful debt-ridden, ivy educated son, Zeke, who has arrived with his unplanned baby in the wake of a life-shattering development.

In an act of desperation, Willa begins to investigate the history of her home, hoping that the local historical preservation society might take an interest and provide funding for its direly needed repairs. Through her research into Vineland’s past and its creation as a Utopian community, she discovers a kindred spirit from the 1880s, Thatcher Greenwood.

A science teacher with a lifelong passion for honest investigation, Thatcher finds himself under siege in his community for telling the truth: his employer forbids him to speak of the exciting new theory recently published by Charles Darwin. Thatcher’s friendships with a brilliant woman scientist and a renegade newspaper editor draw him into a vendetta with the town’s most powerful men. At home, his new wife and status-conscious mother-in-law bristle at the risk of scandal, and dismiss his financial worries and the news that their elegant house is structurally unsound.

Brilliantly executed and compulsively listenable, Unsheltered is the story of two families, in two centuries, who live at the corner of Sixth and Plum, as they navigate the challenges of surviving a world in the throes of major cultural shifts. In this mesmerizing story told in alternating chapters, Willa and Thatcher come to realize that though the future is uncertain, even unnerving, shelter can be found in the bonds of kindred—whether family or friends—and in the strength of the human spirit.

Summary and pic from

My Review: I love Barbara Kingsolver’s writing. I’m obviously not alone, either, since she’s one of the best-known and best-loved authors in modern writing. Some of her books are seriously iconic, and I think I’ve read pretty much all of her novels. I don’t always agree with her politics, which I’ve talked about in reviews before. She’s very heavy-handed with them. However, I’m not a person who shies away from people who think differently than me. In fact, I love learning new things and new viewpoints, even if I don’t agree with them. That being said, she has viewpoints that I do agree with, some I don't, and she’s someone whose opinion I appreciate hearing, no matter whether I agree or not.

One thing I love about Kingsolver’s writing is that her stories are more substantive than just being a good story (although they are definitely that). Whether it’s a political opinion she’s trying to get out or an environmental issue she’s trying to make the reader aware of, Kingsolver writes with a purpose. Unsheltered is no exception to this. It’s a time hop book, which features two different stories going on in the same place (in this case) but at different times. One deals with (so many) modern issues (of which Kingsolver has many opinions), and one deals with issues of the past (of which Kingsolver also has many opinions about). Both stories are compelling and well-written. I really enjoyed the historical story, and would have loved to hear more about the female scientist, Mary Treat, who was a real person. She is so interesting and really ahead of her time, was even considered a peer by Charles Darwin, with whom she corresponded for years. She was not the main character in her story, however; a fictional male schoolteacher is, and although he is interesting, I would have loved to hear more about Mary.

The main character in the present day story, Willa, is not nearly as charming as Mary and the other story, although she seems more real in this regard. She is tired, stressed, and in a very difficult situation, especially considering that she should be—in her own opinion—stable and close to retiring at this point, instead of in the topsy-turvy situation she’s currently in. I did not like Willa that much, and found her to be tiring. She’s also the one who had the most dramatic political tirades and opinions, and I don’t always love that, whether or not I agree with the opinions or not. There’s something to be said for subtlety, and there is something else to be said for being hit over the head with opinions. Again. And again. And again, just for good measure.

So while I did enjoy it, this is not my favorite of Kingsolver’s books. The stories were not as cohesive-feeling as I feel like they could have been. When I read a time hop book, I always hope that the stories connect somewhat; that seems like what would be the point of a time hop book. These did in that they took place in the same house geographically (but in the end, well, you’ll see) but they also really didn’t. It felt like Kingsolver had read about Mary Treat somewhere and wanted to write about her but ended up concocting this whole shebang around her whereas I would have just enjoyed something more about Mary Treat. That being said, I continue to read all fiction by Kingsolver, and I probably will always continue to read all fiction by Kingsolver. She is an incredible writer and a true master in the field.

My Rating: 3 Stars

For the sensitive reader: There is language and discussion of sex. It’s a typical adult novel in this regard.

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