Sunday, March 03, 2019

Fiction Review: Unsheltered

I just finished reading Barbara Kingsolver's latest novel, Unsheltered, and my neighborhood book group discussed it this week. Kingsolver is one of my favorite authors (especially her earlier novels like The Poisonwood Bible, The Bean Trees, and Pigs in Heaven), so I've been looking forward to reading this recent one. Unsheltered features parallel stories set in the same house about 150 years apart; it's clever and compelling, and I enjoyed it very much.

Willa Knox and her husband, Iano, are juggling so many crises at once that they can barely keep up. Their two adult children have had to move back home, along with a newborn infant; Willa lost her job and Iano's job as a college professor barely covers their expenses; Iano's cranky and infirm father lives with them and needs medical care they can't afford; and the house they recently inherited from an aunt in Vineland, NJ, is literally falling down around them. Willa normally takes responsibility for everyone around her, but she is feeling like her life is spinning out of control right now, as she struggles to take care of both a baby and an elderly man (with a serious potty mouth).

In alternating chapters, 150 years earlier, on the same corner in Vineland, Thatcher Greenwood has recently moved in with his new (much younger) wife, Rose; her mother, Aurelia; and her 12-year-old sister, Polly. Their house is also falling down around them and needs a new roof and other unaffordable repairs, but Rose's father built the house, so the women around Thatcher refuse to even consider moving. Thatcher works for modest pay as a high school science teacher in Vineland, a Utopian community started by Charles Landis (a real-life town and man). Thatcher yearns to introduce his students - mostly the children of farmers and laborers - to the excitement of science, but his overbearing principal, a close friend of Mr. Landis, won't allow him to even mention Darwin's revolutionary new discoveries. Thatcher's only refuge is the friendship of his next-door neighbor, Mary Treat (another real-life historical figure), a rare female botanist who spends her time examining the local flora, earns a good living writing about her observations, and corresponds with Mr. Darwin directly.

That sounds like a lot packed into one novel - and it is - but Kingsolver introduces each family and time period gradually and so compellingly that the reader is soon immersed in their lives. I found both stories equally engrossing. Our book group had a wonderful, wide-ranging discussion that included topics like the clever ways that Kingsolver draws parallels between the two stories, the details of each family's challenges, her use of the words "shelter" and "unsheltered" in each chapter with various meanings, and her talent for writing sentences that stop you in your tracks. In this one, Willa muses about the differences between their early years as a couple and their later years with children:
" No rational guidelines existed for comparing youthful freedom with the heart-enlarging earthquake of family life."
As with most Kingsolver novels, she combines the personal with the global, and concepts related to the environment and politics are woven into the narrative. A few in my book group felt she was a bit heavy-handed and preachy at times. I felt that way about her last novel, Flight Behavior (though I still enjoyed it), but I thought this novel was more natural and thoughtful in its approach, ingeniously showing parallels between then and now that indicate that things really haven't changed as much as we might think and that the challenges facing our world today aren't all that new. Mostly, though, this warm, engaging, entertaining novel is about family and how compassion, connections, and creativity can see us through the most difficult times in our lives.

461 pages, HarperCollins

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Listen to a sample of the audio book, read by the author from the start of the novel - though I read this one in print, I love listening to Kingsolver read her own novels. Just listening to this brief sample made me smile and want to read the book again!

You can buy the book through, where your purchase will support the indie bookstore of your choice (or all indie bookstores)--the convenience of shopping online while still buying local! 

Or you can order Unsheltered from Book Depository, with free shipping worldwide.


  1. I am listening to this book on audiobooks right now. I'm about a third of way through the book and can't quite feel connected to anyone yet. I keep hoping that those connections start happening for me soon. We decided to NOT read this for book club because someone had heard about it being preachy. I haven't noticed it yet.

    I'd like to invite you and your readers to join me in a new reading challenge to read books you own. Check out the details: 'My Own Books' Reading Challenge

    1. Interesting, Anne - though I enjoy hearing Kingsolver narrate her own audios, the only book o fhers that I listened to on audio was Flight Behavior, and it is my least favorite - I also felt it took me a while to connect to the character in that. But reading this one in print, I immediately connected with Willa - maybe it was her taking care of her FIL!

      Your challenge sounds wonderful - I ALWAYS need extra motivation to read more books on my shelves already. But I already joined my 2019 challenges, including the TBR Challenge. And I thought I was the last one on earth to finally join challenges for this year! If you do it again next year, I will sign up!


  2. I grew up in Vineland and have lived nearby all my life. When I heard about this novel, being a student of local history, I was intrigued. Admittedly, while familiar with Barbara Kingsolver I had not read any of her previous works. I credit her with actually visiting and staying in Vineland while researching Unsheltered. And she credits the locals who helped her. It was an interesting idea to juxtapose the 19th and 21st Centuries, using the house as the focus. And, very much to the author's credit she highlights the unsung, barely known, hero of Vineland, Naturalist Mary Treat. She was a contemporary and correspondent with Charles Darwin and others of her time. I find fault with Ms. Kingsolver's portrayal of the founder of Vineland, Charles K. Landis. He certainly was no angel. He was a man obsessed with his vision, Vineland. This made Landis a control freak, abusive husband, and a control freak. And he was a murderer. That said he was not closed minded when it came to Science, Technology, philosophy, and religious belief. My other negative about the book is the author via her alter ego Willa injects to much of the author's 21st Century worldview into the 19th century. Willa is the poster child for post-modern nihilism. In other words if you have a different point of view you are a lesser person and to be dismissed. But, all that said Unsheltered is part of my book collection relating to local history. There is an interesting biography on Charles K. Landis titled Before The Wind.

    1. Thanks so much for taking the time to leave a comment, Curtis, and for the additional history lesson! Much appreciated. Many people do feel that Kingsolver has become a bit heavy-handed in her later novels.

  3. This is on the top of my nightstand pile and I'm so looking forward to reading it. Thanks so much for your intelligent review!

  4. I absolutely loved her earliest books (through Prodigal Summer) and have not been drawn to the more recent.

    1. I understand - her earlier ones are my favorites, though I have still enjoyed her two latest and really loved this one.