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Titles similar to Unsheltered
Rather than looking to a dystopian near-future to address environmental concerns, as so many fiction writers have, Kingsolver (Flight Behavior, 2012) knits them right into the familiar lives of her ensnaring characters. In this exceptionally involving and rewarding novel, Kingsolver considers how our ways of living are threatened by the changing climate and our ever-increasing pressure on the biosphere, conducting a subtle, many-stranded inquiry into the concept of shelter within two story lines in two time frames, both anchored in Vineland, New Jersey.
In the present, magazine editor Willa Knox inherits a house. This should have been a lifesaver, given that her magazine has shut down; the college at which her political-scientist husband, Iano, finally earned tenure has closed; his severely ill and disabled father, Nick, is living with them; and their adult children need help. Tig (short for Antigone), an Occupy Wall Street alum, has reappeared without warning after a sojourn in Cuba. Zeke, whose Harvard degree has left him in overwhelming debt, is desperate for help with his newborn, motherless son. But the gift house is a hopelessly disintegrating wreck. With nearly no income, torturously inadequate and confounding health insurance, and bewilderment over how a hardworking middle-class family could find itself in a catastrophic economic crisis, Willa, smart and persistent, funny and loyal, visits the Vineland Historical Society with the long-shot hope that their crumbling house is of historical significance.
Readers, meanwhile, meet Thatcher Greenwood, newly married and moved into a home in Vineland, a cultist, alcohol-free community recently built by Captain Charles Landis in the wake of the Civil War. There Thatcher, responsible for his pretty wife, her smart and unconventional younger sister, and their status-seeking mother, is appalled to find that their house has been so shoddily constructed it is in danger of collapse. Thatcher fears that his position as Vineland’s high-school science teacher is equally precarious, given his employer’s staunch opposition to Darwin’s theory of natural selection, which Thatcher has every intention of teaching. And why is their neighbor, Mrs. Treat, lying on the ground?
Kingsolver alternates between Willa’s droll reflections on her ever-worsening predicament, and Thatcher’s on his, subtly linking their equally compelling, alternating narratives with a repeated phrase or echoed thought, a lovely poetic device that gently punctuates the parallels between these two times of uncertainty. As Willa thinks about how “the need to shelter her family never lifted its weight from her shoulders,” she shudders in response to the alarming bombast of the brazenly unqualified Republican presidential candidate (who remains unnamed), whom Nick supports, leading to musings over how we find shelter under the rule of law and in pursuit of truth. As for Thatcher, he discovers an ally in Mary Treat (who, it turns out, was lying down in order to observe ants in her yard). She is a renowned naturalist, popular-science writer, and valued correspondent of Charles Darwin’s with a house full of carnivorous plants and large glass jars in which spiders are building their homes. As Thatcher battles with the powers that be over their resistance to Darwin’s findings, Kingsolver explores the ways we shelter within our beliefs, however erroneous, when we feel threatened by new knowledge and perspectives. Becoming “unsheltered,” Kingsolver ponders, is to be imperiled in some ways and liberated in others.
There is much here to delight in and think about while reveling in Kingsolver’s vital characters, quicksilver dialogue, intimate moments, dramatic showdowns, and lushly realized milieus. Her delectable portrait of the real-life Mary Treat (1830–1923) places Unsheltered on a growing list of outstanding novels about underappreciated women scientists, including Richard Bausch’s Hello to the Cannibals (2002), Tracy Chevalier’s Remarkable Creatures (2010), Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things (2013), Amy Brill’s The Movement of Stars (2013), Marie Benedict’s The Other Einstein (2016), and Andromeda Romano-Lax’s Behave (2016). Ultimately, in this enveloping, tender, witty, and awakening novel of love and trauma, family and survival, moral dilemmas and intellectual challenges, social failings and environmental disaster, Kingsolver insightfully and valiantly celebrates life’s adaptability and resilience, which includes humankind’s capacity for learning, courage, change, and progress.
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