“I’m out of the habit. I’ve been trying not to want. Just, you know, as an endeavor, like quitting smoking.”
Willa Knox is living the life that many people are today, hitting middle age and caring for ailing parents, or in-laws, housing their adult children with grandkids in tow, wondering where all their money went, losing jobs despite years of dedication and loyalty. In Willa’s case, she is the designated ‘crises handler’ and it worked fine for years, with her mother to help rally behind her but now she is gone. Iano has been the free spirit in the marriage, after more than 30 years she can’t just expect his romantic, fun side to suddenly turn serious, despite being overwhelmed by everything that seems to have gone wrong. It is time, however, for her make everyone face the reality of the crumbling innards of their lives and the home in Vineland, New Jersey she’s inherited from her aunt. There is nothing romantic about this money pit. She cannot do this without everyone pitching in.
Her plan to relay the bad news is met with even more, her son Zeke is on the phone with sad news of his own, now the family must make room for him and his infant son. He is devastated by the new reality of his life, a shocking turn for the worse, Willa cannot let him be swallowed up by it all. Feeling herself like a worn out mother, she spends her nights and days trying to help her grandson, Aldus get on some sleep schedule while giving her son the space he needs. On the verge of tears herself, was it really this hard mothering a wailing infant when she was a young mother, her advanced age proves motherhood is exhausting now. It’s becoming a full house not to mention a ranting Greek, her elderly father-in-law on oxygen, declining but still ticking, loudly! He’s actually pretty funny as a character, but some of us know all too well in reality such people are a right pain in the arse! Her daughter Tig, also lives at home at twenty-six and couldn’t be any different from her brother. Always free-spirited, Tig surprised Willa by returning home out of the blue one day. This after a year of no news, and there isn’t even time to ask what happened between her and the man she was with because more rotten luck hits Willa between the eyes. On the tide of her feisty daughter’s return came the news of the college’s closure where Iano worked, and with it the house they were living in.
Iano isn’t making enough to hold her family or home up. The bills have become a paper mountain, one that the measly pay can’t hope to conquer. Her freelance work is more embarrassment than help. For once, Tig has a job while her more successful brother Zeke doesn’t, which she can’t help but point out, but Zeke does have a plan. Of course the two are political opposites too, so insert fiery conversations within the family, when good old Iano isn’t throwing in his knowledge and old grandpa’s inflammatory views. They are beginning to feel the burn of their decline, problems with insurance, not enough money to keep their heads above water, something has to change. They have done everything right in life, and look how that is turning out!
If Willa can get help restoring her home then things could look brighter, because they certainly can’t afford the numerous repairs. But first, she has to find out if there is any truth that one Mary Treat, a well-known scientist in her own right and Darwin’s friend and advocate, ever lived in her home. This could be of interest to the Historical Preservation Society, and be of great support in getting the help they need!
Who she discovers instead is Thatcher Greenwood, a scientist and teacher whom ruffled the feathers of Landis and his community for trying to teach Darwin’s theory of evolution. Naturally this is in direct conflict with their belief in God, and their own leader Landis whom they follow blindly, despite any sort of evidence that exposes said beliefs as false. I think you could insert a president’s name if you’re so inclined, at least I imagine the author does. It is the early days of marriage too between Thatcher and his wife Rose but despite her evident beauty and charms, it is Treat who is like-minded, whose peculiar behavior (counting ants, studying nature) Rose sees as a ridiculous, unwifely spectacle and Thatcher finds enigmatic. A friendship grows between them. His morality comes in direct conflict with his marriage and their future (dependant on Landis) when something shocking occurs and he has to decide whether to tell the truth or lie to keep Rose’s social dreams a reality.
Going between different time periods, both share the same house, that is crumbling. Both Thatcher and Willa are falling apart as well. What are people themselves if not houses, innards and all? Both are at the mercy of the political winds of their time.
I am a fan of Kingsolver’s earlier novels, and while this is different from my favorites, it has its strengths. She always writes beautifully, so I find myself highlighting passages, but I am not sure everyone will relate to this one. For one thing, many people are tired of conflict in political views, we just can’t escape it, not in our homes nor in our books. It’s evident here, in both time periods: family, the state of healthcare, youth, age, racism, greed, science vs religion, nature, environmental destruction, the changing state of marriage… well… It’s obvious characters remain bull-headed in their beliefs despite evidence to the contrary, which seems to be speaking in a round about way as to how people are now.
It will depress younger people, but Willa’s struggles are all too familiar to many of us. There are periods, if you live long enough, where life just keeps dumping on you. It’s magnified if the ‘climate’ of our times is pitting brother against brother, or…er… sister against sister… Doing things right aren’t a guarantee, because we are entitled to nothing, friends. So try to breathe, even if your house is caving in, what else can you do anyway? Really there aren’t any ‘right’ solutions even in this novel. It did feel like I was sitting down and listening to someone who hates the current state of things, her political leanings, which I am not always adverse to, it’s what writers do, share their views, but sometimes you want to escape and right now everyone is shouting over each other already. In all honesty you cannot really tune out, because everyone is already carrying on about it all, on tv, in our homes, on the street, at the store, in waiting rooms, between bathroom stalls, you get it… Well written but I can’t deny that I am tired hearing the same thing over and over. I already know what everyone is so angry about, every aspect, I don’t live under a rock. But if you feel “Unsheltered” and in a daze about where this thing you call life is rolling, open this book and commiserate with Willa.
I enjoyed reading about naturalist Mary Treat though, what fun a book about her alone would be!
Publication Date: October 16, 2018