The new novel by Barbara Kingsolver opens with Willa Knox getting news that no homeowner wants to hear.
“You see where they put on this addition?” her contractor asks her. “Those walls have nothing substantial to rest on. And the addition entails your kitchen, your bathrooms, everything you basically need in a functional house.”
The house is an old Victorian that Willa inherited in Vineland, a southern New Jersey town originally founded as a utopian community shortly after the Civil War. And it’s not the only thing in Willa’s life with “nothing substantial to rest on.”
She recently was laid off from her financially troubled newspaper and is trying to make a go of it as a freelancer. Her college professor husband, Iano, just had his school go out of business, and he’s scrambling to find a tenure-track position at a university in nearby Philadelphia. The two of them, in their 50s, are saddled with the care of Iano’s desperately ill, cantankerous, reactionary father. Their 26-year-old daughter Antigone (“Tig” for short) is just back from Cuba, singing the country’s praises but looking as though she’s home for good.
Into this dispiriting situation comes catastrophic news involving their seemingly successful son, Zeke, that puts another all-consuming responsibility on the Knoxes. But “Unsheltered” isn’t just about the stress of navigating an all-bets-are-off world in the 21st century.
Half the novel is set in 1870s Vineland shortly after its founding by property developer Charles Landis. What started as an alcohol-free idealistic enterprise has become more of a personality cult by the time newlywed science teacher Thatcher Greenwood arrives in Vineland with his family. Thatcher, too, has inherited “a flawed house” that he finds himself “pledged to uphold.” Problems at school (his supervisor doesn’t want him mentioning Darwinism in the classroom) and tensions at home (his wife and mother-in-law are ardent Landis devotees) are making him miserable.
Thatcher’s only friends are journalist Uri Carruth, who shares his skepticism about the direction that Vineland has taken, and a rather eccentric neighbor, Mary Treat, who, to Thatcher’s astonishment, is a penpal of Charles Darwin. When Thatcher first meets her, in fact, she’s poking her finger in a Venus fly-trap to see what damage it can do her — all in the name of science, of course.
Treat, like Landis and Carruth, is a figure from the history books, and in Kingsolver’s hands she’s an offbeat delight. She has a husband who’s ditched her, but as she puts it, “It is in his absence I prosper.” She’s aware that, to some people, her studies are “a ridiculous undertaking.” But in Thatcher she finds a kindred soul. “Curiosity can be dangerous but never ridiculous,” he tells her. “You wanted to test the capacity of the plant. To know it better.”
The spark between them has to do with their passion to uncover nature’s secrets, using empirical observation and logical deduction. But to Thatcher’s wife, her husband’s interest in these matters feels like marital betrayal.
As Kingsolver alternates between the two eras, they gradually connect. Willa, hoping her crumbling home might be a historical landmark eligible for restoration funding, learns through the Vineland Historical Society that the house might once have been Treat’s. Parallels are drawn between post-Civil War America (“We are a nation of the bereaved,” Mary says, “half burned to the ground”) and the untenable world the Knoxes inhabit. (“It’s like the rules don’t apply anymore,” Willa says. “Or we learned one set and then somebody switched them out.”)
Kingsolver’s title comes into play with words from Mary that eventually find their way to Willa: “Unsheltered, I live in daylight. And like the wandering bird I rest in thee.” Still, Mary is aware that not everyone can stand that kind of exposure.
Kingsolver, clearly, has an agenda in the book, which includes shock at Donald Trump emerging as an increasingly viable presidential candidate in early 2016. But her contemporary narrative is laced with wry, genial humor (“Make us rich with your article for the AARP magazine,” Iano teases Willa) and the 1870s half of her tale is a gripping study of how battling schools of thought can destroy personal lives. The Knox narrative drags a little in its last stretches, but Mary and Thatcher never fail to captivate as their world takes preposterous, volatile turns.
There’s hard-won wisdom here, and profound doubt as to where our future is taking us. Kingsolver’s voice is urgent, eloquent, wily. Where Willa feels lost and betrayed, her daughter points a modest way forward. “[T]he secret of happiness,” Tig proposes, “is low expectations.” For some readers, that may not feel like uplift. But it could, Kingsolver hints, be one way to stay sane.
By Barbara Kingsolver
Harper, 464 pp., $29.99
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