Book Review: Unsheltered, by Barbara Kingsolver

“Never judge a book by its cover” is an old, clichéd statement that we should all heed, but I’ll take it one step further and say that we should also never judge a book by the summary on the inside cover. Unfortunately, I did both these things before reading Kingsolver’s Unsheltered, and I wasn’t convinced the novel would be for me.

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For those with curious minds, I’ve posted a picture of the novel here so no googling is necessary. That’s right—the cover is done with beautifully rendered images of plants and, well, bugs. The inside cover praises this novel as a tale of two families struggling in precarious times. This message, though accurate, doesn’t do the novel justice for the level or kind of precariousness it covers.

Based on the summary and the cover, I was dreading the historical fiction parts, and I’ll honestly say I wasn’t very excited to read it. It is a rare historical novel that interests me, and I was afraid that this one wouldn’t do Kingsolver’s work justice (I’ve read many of her other novels and loved them).

The bottom line is this: I shouldn’t have judged. The novel is very good. It functions less as a historical fiction than a scathing indictment of the current political times, whether or not this was Kingsolver’s intent. It also functions in many ways like two separate novels, yet the stories are closely related not just in physical location but because of the tumultuous and changing time period.

Willa—the protagonist in the contemporary story—clings to her idea of achieving the American Dream even as it fails her and her family. Yet I found Willa’s personal narrative to be less interesting than her daughter, Tig’s, story. For much of the novel Tig has a representatively small part, though her story is arguably the most fascinating. She disappears for years in Cuba, living with a family she adopts as her own, only to show back up on Willa’s doorstep with no explanation. She knits, grows herown veggies, and fixes cars. She might be a Freegan, if given the opportunity. It is not until the last few chapters or so that Tig’s narrative and story becomes more clear, and I was riveted by her.

In the historical sections of the novel, Thatcher makes heroic efforts to support the education of his pupils and promote true, scientific thinking, even as those in power seek to underscore his reputation and knowledge. His is an exciting underdog tale, and Mary Treat—his neighbor and friend—is an accomplished female scientist who is endlessly vibrant fascinating. She harbors spiders in her living room. Transplants ferns. Writes letters to Asa Gray and Darwin as comrades. For a woman limited by society and upbringing, Mary Treat doesn’t disappoint. From the first glimpse of her face down in her yard to the very final pages, Treat is the highlight of the historical sections.

If I say more, I’ll be dropping spoilers, so I’ll stop there. If you’re not into historical novels, give this one a go—it’s so much more than that. Afraid of the scientific parts? Never fear. This is a political underdog story that is highly relevant for our present time.

My final words: while initially I thought the political points might be better served in essay form, at the conclusion of the novel it makes sense to include them in story form as their pointedness will reach a broader audience.

Book Review: The Woman Who Walked Into Doors

Most of my book reviews are written within a day or two after I’m done reading. As I turn the pages, I take notes in the margins (what else are margins for, anyway?), dog-ear pages that are especially relevant to the message I’ll speak to in the review, and jot down ideas as I go along. By doing this, the reviews often come together easily, which can be a small blessing.

But honesty is needed in this case. I finished reading The Woman Who Walked Into Doors by Roddy Doyle a few weeks ago, almost three weeks to be exact, and I am just now sitting down to write my review. After reading other reviews, I felt I needed to say more to get the white-hot center of it, as Claire Keegan would say in her incredible courses.

Reading through other reviews on Goodreads, even those who haven’t read the novel can be clear that it tackles some weighty issues—alcoholism, domestic abuse, broken families, poverty—and I won’t labor those points. The novel is more than just that, which is where the difficulty comes in; there’s a lot more than abuse going on in Doyle’s novel that makes it a fantastic read.

Putting aside the sometimes overwhelming and graphic violence, Doyle’s novel is a heart wrenching social study. Paula Spencer, our protagonist, is heroic in her imperfect way, and her strength is admirable. She works, she takes care of her kids, and wants things in life only for them (as a maid, she’s jealous of only one home, that being the one in which the kids have everything). She drinks, too, but the rules she’s set for herself are telling of her dedication and effort to do the right thing. Only after Jack, her youngest, goes to bed, and only after she finds the key, which she tosses into the grass every day, will she open the shed where she stores her drink. These rules help Spencer keep sane as she navigates a life that threatens to destroy her.

Some chapters, chapter 18, for example, just sing in their simplicity and depth. Spencer is conversationally, almost monotonously, relating the facts of her day. Of her life. She is annotating to herself what she does and why she does it, all so that she can prevent her mind from wandering to those aspects of her life which are more terrible. Her matter-of-fact way of relating the details of her life are a defense mechanism to prevent her from feeling the strong emotions that threaten her. She thinks about many topics, such as porridge, milk, and her eldest son, John Paul, who has run away to become a drug addict.  Here’s a fantastic example of Spencer’s thought process in action:

“I could never get any of them [her children] to eat porridge. My father believed in porridge. He believed it could do good things for you.
—Culchie food, said John Paul.
I wonder what he has for his breakfast these days.
Stop.
Leanne has tea. Jack has milk. I only got him to stop using the bottle last year. He’d started school; it was embarrassing. It took him ages to admit that it tastes just as nice out of a Wine the Pooh mug. I did tests with him; it was like an ad. Now try brand X.”

In this passage, Paula mentally stops herself, telling herself to get back to the facts, which allows her to avoid having a breakdown. Readers are in the white-hot center of Spencer’s pain. Although we’re often rooted solidly in Paula’s head, it works. By providing us with such strong access to Spencer’s interior life,  Doyle has exposed Spencer’s fragility, her threatening situation, and her unbelievable ability to keep on in spite of it all.

Toward the end, Doyle’s description of the abuse Spencer survives is sometimes heavy-handed (it goes on for pages, and can be graphic). Yet in spite of this, he’s set us up so that we care deeply about Spencer and her wellbeing. Imperfect as she is, a reader is on her side and not entirely disconnected with the novel when Doyle begins his violent litany.

Yet I must emphasize, perhaps controversially, that Doyle’s more powerful moments aren’t when Spencer’s husband is tearing out her hair; they are the more subtle ones. For me, one of the more saddening scenes in the novel is when the Spencers are first married—chapter 21. The wedding is artificial. The couple is happy, but there’s an air of “putting-on” that makes even their happiness seem fake. This sentence is a great example: “Our house was only a hundred yards from the church but the chauffeur brought us twice around the estate to make a journey of it.” And it wasn’t just the one isolated incident. The photographer missed important moments in the wedding, and the party had to repeat certain actions to capture them appropriately. For example, there are photographs of the Spencers pretending to cut the cake—but not actually cutting it. In essence, the real actions were lost, had gone unnoticed, but the recreated and acted ones are the record of their marriage.

It is, in my opinion, these scenes that make Doyle’s novel so powerful. He tells the complete story of Paula Spencer’s life—a life of not having anything, of wanting more, and of learning to pretend when what’s wanted (and often needed) will never be available to her.

My final word: be prepared for the graphic scenes, and this novel will be a gripping tale that you won’t be able to put down.