A new novel by Barbara Kingsolver, one of America’s finest writers, is a real literary event, so I ordered “The Unsheltered” the day it was released. (Her last two novels were first on my “best fiction of the year lists).
“Unsheltered”, however, disappoints, more so because Kinsolver’s writing about some very important, topical themes. Things are not going well for a middle-aged husband and wife (nor for their two children). The parents have each had excellent jobs, she as a journalist for a national magazine which suddenly folded, and he worked , teaching, at a college, which also folds. Inheriting a falling down house in Southern New Jersey, he finds a job as an adjunct teaching there, while she seeks free-lance work, rather lacklusterly. Their older son is trying to make it as an investment advisor in Boston (turns out he’s an unpaid intern), and his wife, who’s just given birth to their son, commits suicide, and his parents, of course, end up taking care of the baby. Their younger daughter, who’s been in Cuba for three years, believes that Cubans live better than Americans do; she’s prone to lecturing the parents (and her brother: they truly despise one another), and she’s also environmentally fanatical. This family has basically fallen apart, though they stick by one another as best they can on a very limited income in a collapsing house; the husband’s dying father, who, politically, is to the right of Louis XIV, also lives with them. The only upside to the suicide is that the couple wasn’t married, so he’s not stuck with her huge clothing debts and the lease on her new Mercedes: Kingsolver’s brutally honest about these very real
issues, seen mostly from the point of view of the mother, who’s the narrator.
For reasons not entirely clear, Kingsolver has added, in alternating chapters, the story of a man from about a hundred years back, who lived in the same house in the same town, teaching science in the high school; he’s a devotee of Darwin in a town suspicious of same. He’s married “above his station” and his new wife and her mother, with whom he lives, simply spend their time social climbing while he goes to work; they are the first to dump him when he loses his job because he’s a Darwinian scientist in a town dominated by a couple of rich white men who see him as a threat to their world and their power. The relationships to America now are clear; there’s the fear of the new, the future, of science, of changing mores and ethos; our scientist becomes friends and eventually more with a woman neighbor, a great botanist of the era (she’s real). Small town America is seen here at its most provincial, most suspicious, most petty. But I’m not entirely sure why Kingsolver chose these double narratives for this novel.
Kingsolver, who’s also a renowned scientist herself, must have wanted some scientific inquiry in this novel, and it’s useful to the reader to see these unattractive sides of America from the past; her points are clear about so many contemporary American problems. But the tone of the novel is too much like Ann Tyler; the characters should be angry, and should express it; the wife in the contemporary culture does often spar with her father-in-law, and sometimes with both children. It’s lovely reading about a couple, the parents, who genuinely love one another (in spite of some minor infidelities on his part). While their son goes back to Boston to try to put together a “socially responsible” investing company, the daughter tries to convince her parents that her generation (millennials) are going to live on less, with less, and with sensitivity to the environment and to climate change; there are times when, as the reader, you’ll want to shout her smugness down, but she’s the one who, in the end, will rear the baby, with a compatible boyfriend and it’s fascinating how they make things, rather than buy them, and live on so much less. But Tyler’s characters are known for their vague eccentricities, and there’s way too much Ann Tyler in this novel. But the issues it raises about life in contemporary America are urgent, and Kingsolver is one of the first novelists to chart these fascinating territories. The uncertainties and utter lack of security in today’s America are important themes, as are the intergenerational contrasts of values and meaning. If only Kingsolver had brought her usual spunk to this novel, she’d have written a great book. It’s odd to read about these issues which generate so much anger now, without expressing the anger: that’s the novel’s main flaw, as well as whether the novel needs the double plot line at all. It’s still worth reading, of course, but lower your expectations when you do.