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Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver - Review

Tuesday, December 1, 2020

November's choice in my book club was Unsheltered by Barbra Kingsolver. It was chosen by Margaret, I think, who always chooses really interesting books. This one was no different. I've never read anything by Kingsolver, although I've got friends who love her. I know The Poisonwood Bible is supposed to be really good, and having read this I would definitely read that. 

This book has a dual narrative to it, focussing on one house in New Jersey, in a town that was a planned utopia by a man called Landis. 

In the modern times, the house is owned by Willa and her family. It was left to her by her aunt, who has recently died, as has her mother. Willa is fifty something and has two children, Zeke and Tig, and a Greek husband, Iano. Iano is a college professor and Willa has been working as a journalist, but has lost her job. Thanks to a college closing in PA, so has Iano. The family has also lost their house and pension because of this. Iano has got another job in New Jersey, so the house coming into their possession seems like a total blessing. 

Willa and Iano and Tig move, along with Iano's elderly father, Nick. Nick is cantankerous, and racist, and needs more and more care as the novel goes on. Zeke has recently had a baby with his girlfriend Helene. But then a tragedy happens and Zeke and the baby, Aldus, move to New Jersey into the house too. Tig has recently returned from Cuba, where she was living, but in all the upset, Willa doesn't know exactly why she has come home. 

This would all be fine, and the house is huge, but it's also falling down. The roof is beyond repair, and there's a problem with the foundations of the two storey extension. Willa and her family have absolutely no money to pay for repairs, and over the book the house starts to fall down around them. 

Willa begins to investigate the history of the house, in the hopes of finding that it belonged to someone important and that there might be a grant available  for its upkeep. 

Meanwhile, in the 1880s, the house belonged to Thatcher Greenwood, who was a teacher at the local high school. His wife, Rose, had lived in the house with her mother and younger sister, but they had to exile themselves in New York for a while. Now they're back. Thatcher is more than ten years older than Rose and she is a much higher class than him. The house is already failing, and Thatcher struggles to keep up with the cost of the repairs and the luxurious wishes of his wife and mother in law. 

Next door there lives an older woman, by herself. Thatcher begins to form a friendship with her. She is a woman of science; she corresponds with Darwin and is a big proponent of his views on science and evolution. Mary Treat was a real person, and I liked how she was fictionalised here. I liked her and her friendship with Thatcher a lot. Thatcher's life changes massively over the book and I liked that too.

I liked Willa, and Tig, a lot. I thought Iano was a bit of a dickhead, and I didn't like Zeke or Nick. There's a lot of modern day politics in the book (it's set just about when Trump was trying to get elected in 2016). I found this a little bit heavy handed, actually, but that is just about my only criticism of the book. I liked it a lot - four out of five. 

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