Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver (ARC Review)

Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver
Publisher: Harper Books (October 16, 2018)
Description from the publisher:
How could two hardworking people do everything right in life, a woman asks, and end up destitute? Willa Knox and her husband followed all the rules as responsible parents and professionals, and have nothing to show for it but debts and an inherited brick house that is falling apart. The magazine where Willa worked has folded; the college where her husband had tenure has closed. Their dubious shelter is also the only option for a disabled father-in-law and an exasperating, free-spirited daughter. When the family’s one success story, an Ivy-educated son, is uprooted by tragedy he seems likely to join them, with dark complications of his own.
In another time, a troubled husband and public servant asks, How can a man tell the truth, and be reviled for it? A science teacher with a passion for honest investigation, Thatcher Greenwood finds himself under siege: his employer forbids him to speak of the exciting work just published by Charles Darwin. His young bride and social-climbing mother-in-law bristle at the risk of scandal, and dismiss his worries that their elegant house is unsound. In a village ostensibly founded as a benevolent Utopia, Thatcher wants only to honor his duties, but his friendships with a woman scientist and a renegade newspaper editor threaten to draw him into a vendetta with the town’s powerful men.
Unsheltered is the compulsively readable story of two families, in two centuries, who live at the corner of Sixth and Plum in Vineland, New Jersey, navigating what seems to be the end of the world as they know it. With history as their tantalizing canvas, these characters paint a startlingly relevant portrait of life in precarious times when the foundations of the past have failed to prepare us for the future.

I adore Barbara Kingsolver, and was ecstatic to get a complimentary advance copy to review. Although, it is been many years since I’ve read one of her books. I think the last one was Prodigal Summer, which is one of my favorites, and The Poisonwood Bible is an all-time favorite. I think that perhaps I had her up on a pedestal and my expectations were very high going into this book. 
As with most dual timeline narratives (of which I am a fan) one edges out the other and begins to feel like the primary story that grabs my attention. In this novel I found the fictional Thatcher Greenwood meeting the naturalist, Mary Treat, in the 1880s the more compelling of the two. Perhaps because she was a real historical figure, and many of the incidents that Kingsolver describes during that time frame actually happened. I find it enlightening to look at events in history and see how they reflect our present. Thatcher's attempts to teach Darwin and the backlash of the town leaders held a perfect mirror up to current issues around the fact of climate change (and apparent disregard for facts in general).
I had a hard time with the present day timeline, mainly because much of it felt like an op-ed and her supporting characters were vessels for each viewpoint. When Willa's son and daughter went on about economic disparity, it felt so cumbersome. Though Willa's story was engaging, as she navigated the ups and downs of the 'sandwich generation' - taking care of children (in addition to a grandchild in this case) as well as an aging parent. It felt very chaotic and messy, like a very real family in this day and age. 
Overall, I would say it was on the didactic side, even for Kingsolver. Although I agree with what she was trying to get across, I didn’t get as swept up in her storytelling like I normally do because of all the obvious messages, of which there were A LOT. It felt like the news these days: a little exhausting. It plodded in parts for me because she didn't focus on a single theme, but what felt like all of them - racism, healthcare, income inequality, climate change, and our current political climate. Current real life figures also play a part, and yes, a Donald Trump character is very thinly veiled as 'The Bullhorn' who makes that infamously loathsome comment about being able to shoot someone on 5th Avenue. The comparisons to the Vineland town leader Charles Landis (another real historical figure) are evident. 
“Somehow he gets them to side against their own.”
“They are happier to think of themselves as soon to be rich, than irreversibly poor.”
It’s all the more striking that the 19th century trial at the end of the book truly happened, and I’ll leave it at that!  
In the end, the various themes can be wrapped up in the fact that they are indeed all heightened right now and can also be distilled to the dichotomy of the struggle between the younger versus older generation: how we can keep progressing forward, unsheltered, and not cling to the past, be open to continual change. My favorite part, when Willa watches her grandson try to walk:
“He fell down on his pad bottom. But he went right back to it, trying again. He would do this over and over until he had it, and today or tomorrow he would walk. Will remembered all this. She’d watched her kids master these first small tasks with an application of effort that seemed superhuman, but of course it only amounted to being human, a story written in genes. First they would stagger, then grow competent, and then forget the difficulty altogether while thinking of other things, and that was survival.”
Many thanks to the folks at Harper Books for an advance copy in exchange for my honest review!


  1. Oh no! I really don't like books that feel like vessels for an agenda. I like "agenda issues" to be organic parts of each character's story. Like the book does explore an issue, but only because it's a natural part of a character's life...doesn't feel forced. I think An American Marriage did a good job with that.

    1. And it's such a bummer to me, because this is normally what Kingsolver EXCELS at! Alas...

  2. I wanted to wait until I wrote my own review before reading yours and I just finished so didn't even wait a day. I understand feeling as if the agenda overtook the book and I don't disagree. Somehow, for me, even though the characters were so clearly defined as a segment of society, it worked. Maybe because they weren't hiding or obfuscating the way things are now in real life? I don't know, but it didn't bother me as much as it did you. Maybe because Willa's situation struck terror into my heart- closing in on retirement, aging parent...stress and insecurity, all that.

    And somehow, at the beginning, I was more put off by Thatcher's story! I didn't want to leave Willa. But then I fell into his and Mary's world and didn't want it to end.

    1. I found the part with Mary's finger in the plant rather funny and endearing, so that pulled me in!
      Maybe I'm too stressed about the current state of the world and don't want to rehash the details until we're past some of this?! Maybe I needed a little obfuscation :)