Jan 17, 2019

Unsheltered

by Barbara Kingsolver

The novel is about two families, living on the same property in New Jersey, but a century apart in time. In each case, the family is seriously struggling with looming insecurity. The modern family lives in an inherited house that is on poor foundations and literally falling apart, while they deal with an elderly, terminally ill parent, a new baby pretty much left for other family members to raise when the young father buries himself in work travel after his wife's suicide, and the husband's insecure tenure at a local college. Their carefully structured life seems to be coming apart at the seams, some family members drifting in and staying as four generations huddle under one leaky roof, while others are on the verge of exiting (the vitiperous old man). Woven in alternate chapters, the story of the family from the 1800's -also living in a crumbling house in desperate need of repairs no one can afford- has a professor at odds with his employer because he wants to teach real science to his students- Darwinism is a new idea which many fear and abhor- and in the end he finds himself in a public debate with leaders of the community who staunchly resist scientific thought, threatening more than just his livelihood.

I really really wanted to like this book more than I did- not only because Kingsolver is one of my favorite authors, but also because it was a gift to me from a family member. But the writing is rather heavy-handed. It feels like the author wrote it with a strong agenda, and I can readily see how some readers find her narrative preachy and off-putting. I happen to agree with many of her opinions, and even I found it a bit tough to finish this book. Either side of the narrative thread I feel could have made a stronger story if it had stood on its own, with more depth and personality. I did like the way the last few words of each chapter became the title of the next- to me it seemed a deft interweaving (not gimmicky). But in each case I had a hard time becoming involved with the characters- it all felt a bit too distant, a bit too stuffed with dense conversations and lectures (rather reminiscent in that regard of Ring of Endless Light). In the modern part of the story, I really liked the character of Tig- so resourceful and bold- but the others- meh. And in the historical storyline, I was intrigued by the neighbor woman the teacher befriended- Mary Treat, a scientist in her own right who had correspondence with Charles Darwin (and a real person, whom I'd never heard of before). The main character from the current storyline ends up researching Mary Treat- another way the stories were tied together. But every time I read the interactions between the teacher and scientist the conversations felt rather stiff, and I never cared enough about them.

Well, maybe it will be better on a second read someday. Also to note the infusion of current politics in the story- very current- made it feel shockingly relevant but also uncomfortably awkward. I just don't enjoy politics that much in my reading, even though it's important to see what's going on around us and do something. The big picture I ended up with: somehow, we will survive and move on. Families intact or otherwise (forming something new).

Rating: 3/5                  463 pages, 2018

2 comments:

bermudaonion said...

I really like Kingsolver so I'm sad to see this isn't her best.

Stefanie said...

Heavy-handed is was I was worried about. I have a number of people tell me how much they loved the book. I am very deep in the library holds queue so my turn won;t be for months. We'll see how it goes I guess!