- Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver
The awesome woman who ran my college bookstore (a true bookstore in addition to carrying class materials, assorted products with the school's name emblazoned thereon, and snacks) introduced me t Kingsolver in the mid-late 90s and I've been a fan ever since. Some of her books do miss the mark for me so I get a little nervous and try to tamp down excitement, but this one was a winner.
A house ties Thatcher's tale in the 1870s with that of the modern-day Willa Knox. Thatcher is a science teacher in a semi-utopian community and struggles with a desire to teach about Darwin and lead hands-on science classes while the community's leader forbids any mention of evolution and any sort of investigative exploration. He finds a kindred spirit in his neighbor, Mary Treat, a character that is fictionalized version of a real woman scientist who corresponded with man of the great minds of her time. Willa is also struggling. She "had it all" and suddenly lost it. She lost her job, her husband was denied tenure and has taken a less-than desirable position out of need, her father-in-law is ailing and mean, her daughter is a mystery to her, and her son faces an unexpected tragedy in the earl chapters that brings his infant child into Willa's home. She's living in a home she inherited. As it was when it Thacher's family occupied it (the primary connective tissue between the two tales), the house is in need of major renovations. The home is literally crumbing around both families, a physical manifestation of the world's they have known. Willa does eventually "meet" Thatcher and Mary when she investigates her home's history in the hopes of finding a way to save it.
Many of Kingsolver's books have a sociopolitical message, including a decidedly liberal slant, and this is no exception. The book strongly favors science and honors the natural world. It has an opinion about some types of organized religion, although I think it does allow room for religion to coexist with science. Immigration is front-and-center in Willa's tale as are issues about mental health, the high cost of both healthcare and education, and politics more generally (again, with a liberal POV). Decide if this is okay with you....if it isn't, that's fine. But sit this one out unless you are up for a challenge...
I read for character and I loved the people I met in this book. Mary and Thatcher are exquisite creations. We meet Mary through the eyes of the socially-conscious ladies in Thatcher's home before truly meeting her as they see her lying in the grass seemingly studying the ground in great detail. We later learn that she studies spiders...and sort of hides them in plain sight in her home in a version of miniature terrariums. I didn't like Willa's tale as much, but that's not to say I didn't enjoy it...I just liked the older story better. And Willa's story does feel like it was stuffed with a few too many plot points to "get everything in." As a liberal myself, I appreciated the viewpoints advanced and was okay with the clear agenda and criticism of Trump-ism. But, I'll admit that some of Willa's story felt forced. Still, I liked how the two stories interwove in terms of theme, but also avoided being TOO similar to the point where it simply didn't feel real. As always, I loved Kingsolver's prose.
Four stars. I'd be torn b/w 4 and 4.5 if Goodreads and Amazon permitted half-star ratings. Notably, I put 4.5 and rounded to 5 in a placeholder review soon after reading it, but I do think 4 is the more honest review given that there were a few elements that I'd change. Know what you are getting into...it isn't for everyone, but it ranks among my favorite of Kingsolver's newer books (Animal Dreams and Bean Trees feel a world away). A big thank you to Harper for providing a free copy in exchange for an honest review.
Okay...I need to follow that with something simpler...
- Miss Treadway and the Field of Stars by Miranda Emerson
Iolanthe Green is missing. The american actress seems to have disappeared while in London, and everyone wonders why.Anna Treadway, who worked as Green's dresser and assists her as she stars in a play. Anna's life is much simpler than Green's, she is relatively sheltered but certainly knows the value of every pound and understands working hard to support herself. Anna is frustrated by the lack of official effort in the search for Green so she undertakes her own search. She meets a motley cast of characters and sees a completely different London during the effort.
I don't have a whole lot to say about this one, which perhaps is enough itself to justify a three star rating. It is a mystery. The characters aren't under-developed but they also aren't fleshed out all to the point where they feel real. There's a nice sense of time and place and some interesting twists....one which may turn some readers away and which I'll let others choose to spoil. There's a lesson of sort about being on the outskirts of the accepted society, although not one that felt too strained. It is a perfectly good book, just not one that stood out for me and I was ready to put it down when it ended. Others seem to have enjoyed it more. I'd call it an airplane read..enough to keep the time moving and engage the reader, but one you can also put aside when the person next to you needs to get up or you need to switch planes. Thank you to Harper for providing a free copy in exchange for an honest review.