Of the many books I have read in 2018, this one takes the cake. Literary without being too self-important or cerebral; long enough to completely fall in love with all the characters and short enough to be bitterly sad that it’s over; incredibly relevant to today’s political climate while managing to be timeless; full of laugh-out-loud funny moments but also poignant truisms that took my breath away. In short: an extraordinarily excellent novel.
Unsheltered centers around two families, in two different centuries, who occupied the same house in Vineland, New Jersey. The house, which is a character as much as our 21st and 19th century protagonists, is falling apart. It was beginning to in the 1880s when Thatcher Greenwood, a science teacher with a passion for Darwin, moved in with his in-laws, and it’s literally starting to crumble in 2015 when Willa Knox, a journalist thrust into a caregiver role, moves her complicated family into the historic home.
Through dual storylines told in alternating chapters, both families navigate their own personal traumas – a suicide, a miscarriage, infidelity – in the context of intense political and cultural upheaval. Thatcher struggles with a town that isn’t ready for the truth-bomb that is the Theory of Evolution but finds companionship in one of history’s real heroines of science: the botanist Mary Treat. Willa can’t comprehend the wave of nationalism overtaking America in the lead-up to the 2016 election but finds escape in researching the history of her property with the offbeat local museum curator.
Both centuries have a host of fully-developed and fabulously nuanced characters, full of quirk and charm and artfully narrated by the author herself. There’s Willa’s foul and feeble Greek father-in-law and her stubborn but saving-grace of a daughter. There’s Thatcher’s staunchly oppositional headmaster and his small-minded wife. All are brought to life, first by Barbara Kingsolver’s arresting prose, and then by her narration.
Sweeping in its scope and yet intensely personal, Unsheltered reminds us that change – large, small, welcome or dreaded – is tremendously difficult but entirely fundamental to the human experience. I cannot recommend it highly enough.
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