Review: Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver

Title: Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver
Publisher: Harper
Genre: Contemporary, Historical, Fiction
Length: 480 pages
Book Rating: C

Complimentary Review Copy Provided by Publisher Through Edelweiss


The New York Times bestselling author of Flight Behavior, The Lacuna, and The Poisonwood Bible and recipient of numerous literary awards—including the National Humanities Medal, the Dayton Literary Peace Prize, and the Orange Prize—returns with a timely novel that interweaves past and present to explore the human capacity for resiliency and compassion in times of great upheaval.

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.


Featuring dual story arcs, Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver is an interesting novel with a socially relevant storyline.

In the present, Willa Knox, her husband Iano Tavoularis, father-in-law Nick and daughter Tig are living together in a somewhat dilapidated house. Living on Iano’s income, there is no room in the budget for the costly house repairs. Just as Willa is grappling with the house issues, their oldest son, Zeke, is in the middle of a crisis and he, along with his infant son, move in with them. Between caring for her grandson and her crotchety father-in-law, Willa begins doing research on the family home in hopes of finding historical significance that could help fund the repairs.

In the past,  Thatcher Greenwood and his wife, Rose, live in Willa’s house. Rose is ten years younger than Thatcher and she has aspirations of moving up in society.  Meanwhile, Thatcher who is a teacher at the local school, has recently befriended their neighbor, Mary Treat.  They greatly enjoy their intellectual discussions but when he supports her friend Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, Thatcher jeopardizes his job and possibly, his marriage.

Of the two story arcs, Willa’s is more engaging but connecting with the family members is difficult. Zeke has essentially abandoned his son after he returns to Boston for  a job opportunity. Willa is finally recognizing that  Zeke is not the person she thought he was after heartfelt discussions with her daughter.  Tig is outspoken yet she is a wonderful caregiver for her racist grandfather. She inadvertently hurts Willa as she disparages her upbringing and parent’s lifestyle. Iago is a loving husband but he is somewhat clueless about daily life with the family. The novel takes place during the 2016 election period and political viewpoints are discussed freely since conservative Nick is a supporter whereas Willa and Tig are vehemently opposed to the Republican candidate.

While the storyline is unique, Unsheltered is a slow paced novel with a cast of mostly unlikable characters. Willa is a wonderful mom but Tig undermines her mother’s  self-worth during some of their more honest conversations. Zeke is incredibly selfish and while he is in a difficult situation, it is impossible to comprehend his disinterest in his son. Tig is extremely opinionated and she expresses her views freely and frequently. Nick is a product of his generation and he does hold back from airing his racist sentiments.

Unsheltered is well-written and Barbara Kingsolver’s research is impeccable. The storyline from the past incorporates real life events and historical people, but it is not as appealing as the contemporary story arc. Despite the topical storyline in the present, it is a struggle to become invested in the characters. The conclusion is uplifting but a little abrupt.  Left leaning readers will enjoy the political aspects of the storyline, but right leaning readers might find it a little heavy-handed.

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