Po­lit­i­cal rhetoric di­min­ishes story

The Columbus Dispatch - - Front Page - By Mar­garet Quamme mar­garetquamme @hot­mail.com

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.

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