Barbara Kingsolver does something amazing in her new novel, “Unsheltered” (Harper, $29.99).
She takes a historical figure — a naturalist who corresponded with Charles Darwin in the late 19th century — and imagines her life in Vineland, New Jersey.
And then she creates fictional characters around her and concocts an entirely new family living in the same house in the modern day. The novel alternates eras from chapter to chapter. Kingsolver has a little writerly fun ending each chapter with the word or words that name the next one.
Mary Treat is the naturalist whom Kingsolver brings to life. We first see her from afar, face down in her yard, peering at something in the grass. Later, inside her home, she meets neighbor and fellow Darwinist Thatcher Greenwood, surrounded by tarantulas in glass jars as a Venus flytrap “eats” her finger.
The 19th-century plot plays out with Thatcher, assisted behind the scenes by Mary, squaring off versus Vineland’s pre-eminent Creationists, the town founder and the principal of the school where Thatcher teaches.
The modern family is led by Willa, a laid-off journalist struggling after her son’s partner kills herself, leaving Willa to take care of her grandson, her young adult daughter and her disabled father-in-law. As Kingsolver writes: “To please their beloveds, some women faked orgasm; Willa faked composure.”
In a note to reviewers not included in the novel, Kingsolver says “Unsheltered” is her attempt to show how families navigate uncertainty, in all sorts of “brave, sweet and ridiculous ways.”
Kingsolver has created art that does exactly that. This is a novel well worth your time.