Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver

The problem with this book is, like some of Kingsolver’s other more recent books, the characters feel as though they were created to embody positions, viewpoints, social issues. This isn’t a book about people and their deep personal struggles. It’s a book about the Trump era.

It makes two separate moves to convey this, and for me, both fall flat. First, she creates a present-day family populated with mouthpieces for ideas of our time: an Occupy Wall Street-attending, social justice warrior-millenial daughter, Tig; an emotionally lost, Harvard-educated, socially conscious investment startup-founding son, Zeke; Willa, the mother, who seems like she’s supposed to be our guide and has no particular viewpoint; Iano, the father who could never get tenure because our academy is falling apart and using adjuncts for everything; and Nick, Iano’s father who lives with them, adores Fox News, hates welfare and Obamacare (even while the family secretly gets him on Medicaid so they can afford the care for his diabetes and other woes), and constantly spews racist and sexist vitriol. We get dinner table arguments that go on at way too much length to make sure each character gets to fully articulate the viewpoint he’s there to represent. But nobody truly wrestles with real, human, individual problems in anything but the most superficial way. It’s okay–Kingsolver knows how to narrate, and construct sentences, and you can follow along reasonably pleasantly–but you can’t follow it anywhere I particularly wanted to go.

Then, we also get a whole second storyline, set in the 19th Century in exactly the same physical place, involving a female biologist, a high school science teacher, and a dramatic whole-town fight between “decency and Darwin,” complete with an extremely long public debate scene that fully puts the question on the table–again without digging into the most difficult personal lives of those involved. (Side note: I’ve already read the book about the female scientist who corresponded with Darwin, when Elizabeth Gilbert wrote it a few years ago, and found it a little too precious even the first time around.)

If there’s a central plot to the contemporary story, it’s Willa uncovering the 19th century story via the local historical society. Blah. Anyway, I suppose we’re supposed to recognize the charicatured anti-Darwin folks in the modern Trump Supports. Get it? Their viewpoints are so crazy and backwards, it’s like we educated liberal folks are the ones who are getting run out of town just for trying to each our high school students about science. Oh, you do get it? Wait, let me make it a little more explicit, just in case. But in my view, this kind of thing is best left to nonfiction. Let the novel stay in the realm of the deeply personal, even where it explores questions about modern life.

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