Political rhetoric diminishes story
It would be impossible to read more than a few pages of “Unsheltered” without recognizing exactly where on the political spectrum Barbara Kingsolver’s loyalties lie.
Even those who share her leanings are likely to chafe under the series of editorials laced tightly into the fabric of the narrative.
The bulky novel, vibrant even when it’s annoying, follows two families facing similar challenges, living in the same little New Jersey town but separated in time by 150 years.
In the mid-19th century, Vineland was founded as a planned community by developer Charles Landis, who banned alcohol and encouraged Italian grape growers to move to the town to produce fruit for juice.
One of Vineland’s more illustrious residents was naturalist and biologist Mary Treat, who studied life in New Jersey’s Pine Barrens and corresponded with Charles Darwin. • “Unsheltered” (Harper, 480 pages, $26.99) by Barbara Kingsolver
Into this factual landscape Kingsolver inserts fictional Thatcher Greenwood. A high-school science teacher with a one-year contract, he becomes friends with next-door neighbor Treat, attempts to placate his socially ambitious young wife, feuds with the school’s prissy headmaster about whether he will be able to teach the theory of evolution, and tries to maintain a house that is falling apart at the seams.
Thatcher’s story unfolds in alternating chapters with that of presentday Willa Knox and her extended family.
Willa has lost her job as a magazine journalist, and her sexy Greek husband, Iano, took a job as an adjunct professor after the college where he was teaching folded. They live in an inherited house very close to where Thatcher’s was located, and it’s in even worse condition.
They share the house with feisty daughter Tig, recently returned from a long stint in Cuba; Iano’s Trumpsupporting father, who is close to death; and a baby grandson, whose mother has committed suicide and whose business school graduate dad, Willa’s son, is happy to cede custody of him.
Kingsolver doesn’t force the parallels between these two stories, but lets them emerge naturally. Stray bits of hope occasionally peek through the increasingly bleak narratives.
The historical chapters evoke the details of time and place. Treat is a fascinating figure, though frustratingly underused. At their best, the Willa chapters bubble with the playful, complicated life of a family whose members disagree about almost everything but still love one another.
Unfortunately, too many of their conversations are so crammed with political talking points that they bear little resemblance to ordinary speech. Kingsolver has a lot to say about the housing crisis, the health-care system, the gig economy, climate change, and a host of other issues, and she doesn’t hesitate to use her characters as mouthpieces for her arguments and their (less convincing) counter-arguments.
The result is a book that’s more talk than action. Although plenty happens, including a real-life murder trial, the action in the book is almost entirely set into motion by outside forces rather than character choices.
The characters Kingsolver admires behave admirably in the face of a host of challenges, which makes it difficult for more fallible readers to relate to them.