By Ashley Lessa
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.
—Unsheltered, back cover
Published by HarperCollins and written by Barbara Kingsolver, Unsheltered offers a thoughtful and empathetic look at the lives of two families living in Vineland, New Jersey, dealing with personal and political uncertainty roughly 150 years apart.
Times are tough for Willa Knox. The magazine where she once worked has folded, and her mother has recently passed away, leaving behind a house with historical charm but a shaky foundation. If it were not for her professor husband Iano’s job offer at the nearby college, they would not attempt to inhabit the crumbling structure. As Willa attempts to settle into her less-than-cozy surroundings, she finds herself dully burdened with an avalanche of family troubles and tragedies, from caregiving for her curmudgeon of a father-in-law to counseling her son through a devastating loss.
On the same street in Vineland in the 1870s, scientist Thatcher Greenwood has just moved into his wife Rose’s childhood home along with his mother-in-law and sister-in-law. After being offered a position at the new school in Vineland, Thatcher can return Rose’s family to their beloved home after years away following Rose’s father’s death. All seems lovely at first, but soon Thatcher finds his working environment difficult; his employer forbids him to conduct experiments with his students, not speak the name of Darwin in his classroom. To make matters worse, the house that so pleases his wife is not structurally sound, a fact his wife refuses to believe. His allies come in the form of his neighbor, a scientist names Mary Treat, and the rebellious journalist Uri Carruth, each of whom gives Thatcher new insights into their little world.
Through Willa and Thatcher, Kingsolver touches on several socio-economic issues in both modern times and the past and contemplates the tendencies of society to split into two factions in times of uncertainty: those who choose to move forward, and those that choose to dig their heels in. Kingsolver peers into the lives of the novel’s characters with honesty and empathy through witty and eloquent dialogue.
The novel is incredibly well-written as Kingsolver novels tend to be but can feel tedious at times and perhaps pedantic. The dialogue comes across as unnatural in places, too poetic to be realistic. It is enchanting, but lacks a compelling plot arc, and seems to carry on for longer than necessary before reaching a too-uneventful conclusion.
While Unsheltered is certainly not Kingsolver’s best novel, it still delivers a heartfelt, honest tale that is a balm for tough times. (★★★★☆)