Unsheltered: A Novel by Barbara Kingsolver

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“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

Harper

 

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The Golden State: A Novel by Lydia Kiesling

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“This is my house, ” I say aloud, and everything in the house contradicts me, down to its dubious foundation.

It is to this house in the desert of Altavista with her baby girl Honey that Daphne flees, leaving behind her work at the University of San Francisco, a student who has never quite finished her PhD despite encouragement from those around her because “working at the institute has amply illustrated the precarious sh*tshow that is a life of the mind”. She is a single mother for all intents and purposes as her Turkish husband, Engin is trapped by a ‘processing error’ and cannot return to the United States of America. The novel follows Daphne and Honey through the desolation their lives have become in Engin’s absence. Single despite the occasional Skype with Honey’s daddy, a tiresome thing, Skype when her life is already consumed by meeting her child’s needs and demands.  A desert seems a fitting place, because this is a sort of desert period for Daphne. The house is her grandparent’s mobile home, her mother is dead and it’s hers now. Her family had lived there for a long time, settled and rooted but this life doesn’t fit her.

You can’t expect a lot of dialogue between a baby and her mother and yet Kiesling manages to make Honey a solid person, whether she is cranky and whiney or like on Day 5 kissing her mommy’s face awake. That’s how we bond though, without words and there is a beautiful intimacy in it. It gets boring at times, and you feel as bogged down as she does but at least the baby is always real, present unlike so many stories where children are unnaturally silent the entire novel. I dont’ think such children exist in reality. Right now, ‘conversations are work’ and Daphne seems to both welcome and hate this self-imposed exile. She thinks Ellery and Maryam, having met their doom and compares the young women to her own very much alive child. But it’s a thought she doesn’t like to feed on, and in some strange way may shoulder a bit of blame for, or maybe not, can you bear the blame of fate’s whims? She should be opening emails, dealing with whatever mess she has jumped ship from back at the university, but she cannot find the wherewithal do it. She is in a sort of strange in-between time so many mother’s are familiar with after the birth of a child. Daphne plus one.

She meets the locals, and explains she works for an institute that studies Islamic studies which naturally begs the question, “Like Isis?” Daphne studies the language, and how countries share an islamic past. Bring up Muslim and hackles raise with a cry of Isis, which is often a shamefully believeable reaction in our country. She absolutely defends her husband and all the Muslims who don’t go around ‘blowing people up’ and plotting terrorism, yet this also isn’t the point of the novel. Despite this, she and Cindy become friends of sorts, even though she doesn’t agree with her ‘ideology.’ The biggest group of people are ‘State of Jeffersoners’, not the sort of group her husband Engin (if he ever returns to her) will be able to tolerate. The possibility of a life where her family’s people have been since the 1800’s just may not be a viable option for her. She gets caught up, somewhat, in the secessionists who don’t want to deal with ‘urban problems’. Generations of people who feel the government is robbing them of the resources they’ve always had to themselves. She meets an old ‘auntie-type’ Alice, who has been to Turkey and serves as a sort of stand in grandma, support she surely lacks with Engin scattered to the wind and the rest of her family dead. A woman who has had much loss and sadness of her own, that far surpasses anything Daphne is struggling with. They take up together on a trip and everything goes sour, this is the climactic moment in an otherwise quiet story.

The story touched on xenophobia here and there, but not as much as you would expect. I was disappointed that Engin was as absent for me as he seems to be for Honey and Daphne. I wondered if some bone thrown my way about their love would have made me care more. Engin aside, I enjoyed the tender moments as much as the exasperating ones between Daphne and Honey. The writing is beautiful but the story did drag often and I usually enjoy being a visitor in a character’s mind. Sometimes I felt as exhausted as Daphne. Good but nothing much happens until the very end.

Publication Date: September 4, 2018

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Listen to the Marriage: A Novel by John Jay Osborne

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“I honestly don’t know, I’d like him to suffer but he seems to be immune to suffering. He seems to always land on his feet.”

Listen to the Marriage made me realize I would make a terrible therapist, I was so fed up with their issues. You can see all the problems from the outside, of course it’s entirely different when you’re in it. This is the story of Gretchen and Steve, their marriage has fallen apart and it isn’t for any one reason, it never is. Sometimes Sandy, the marriage counselor, drove me nuts. She’s meant to be the calm, maintain the gravity but people don’t really love to open up to walls. I know, they’re adults, we are all meant to be very mature when dissecting our mistakes, seeing the obstructions we place in our own lives, but old hurts, old behaviors are hard to conquer. Steve and Gretchen betray each other with affairs, they want to give up and yet both are still clinging. Gretchen feels nothing ever really lands on Steve, nothing affects him as it does her. Take their children, for example, he certainly treats them as if he is babysitting when it’s his turn (that is a very common complaint women have, at least my generation).  Naturally the children are pawns,  happens in so many separations and divorces, which makes it a step in the right direction they are in therapy.

Gretchen isn’t perfect, Steve is sort of on a cliff and she seems undecided, do I want him, do I want to end it. She is wounded, and she wants him to feel pain too, it shouldn’t be easy for him to just be forgiven and he gets his marriage and family as is. Who the heck wants to be the victim all the time? She holds the power, though, and he is trying, he does want to change. Steve hasn’t really ever had a chance, nor a reason, to be a better more involved father. This is a chance for him to be present, and when it begins to work she gets scared.

How many marriages could be saved if people could learn to understand their own behavior patterns and each others? It’s a lot of humble pie partners have to swallow, a lot of wrongs each person must own to get past all the wreckage. Is it possible for Steve and Gretchen to remain together, or if it ends, to do so without destroying their children and each other?

I was admittedly sick and tired of the couple, I know there is an important lesson here, learning to listen to my spouse’s needs, not simply my own. Fair is a hilarious word in marriage as much as in life. When exactly has fair ever played into anything? Most of us figure out early on tit for tat gets you nowhere, there is aways fall out. A balanced marriage isn’t an easy thing, both partners have to be willing and present. Even when we ‘know thyself’ and understand why we do what we do, we are creatures of habit and it’s hard to break old ways. When you try to, sometimes your wife/husband won’t let you, because they have seen you as being one way for so long that it’s hard from them to trust the new you, or give you room to grow.  Gretchen does that with Steve as much as he belittles her as a person.

Women often feel furious their husband isn’t helping enough as a father all the while refusing to let him take the reins. We often want it done our way, not his. The other side of the coin, what to do if your partner isn’t interested much in parenting? Therapy can’t always fix everyone, some people just aren’t willing. Luckily that’s not the case with Steve and Gretchen, both equally screwing up their family and yet both still wanting it to work, maybe.

If you want to play therapist, this is for you. Taking place in office visits, Sandy guides Steve and Gretchen through marital counseling. I wanted to divorce them both at times, but I also understood each side. Are we all this difficult, self-righteous and self-centered? It’s so hard to see ourselves, isn’t it? We all have our own level of ridiculous.

Publication Date: October 2, 2018

Farrar, Straus and Giroux