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Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver
Literary fiction

Unsheltered

by Barbara Kingsolver

Quick take

A sweeping tale of two families coping with turbulent times, from the author of The Poisonwood Bible.

Good to know

  • Illustrated icon, Icon_400

    400+ pages

  • Illustrated icon, Icon_SlowRead

    Slow build

  • Illustrated icon, Icon_FamilyDrama

    Family drama

  • Illustrated icon, Literary

    Literary

Illustrated icon, Icon_Challenging_Indicator

FYI

  • Nonchronological timeline
  • Contains irony and political criticism
  • Character-driven and philosophically-oriented

Why I love it

Brianna Goodman
BOTM Editorial Team

My first apartment was a shared ground floor studio that was loud, ant-infested, and basically a glorified dorm room. But get this: Bob Dylan used to live there—or so our broker told us—and what’s personal space compared to proximity to a legend? So when Willa Knox, the protagonist of Unsheltered, is determined to prove that a remarkable historical figure once inhabited her otherwise invaluable home, I got it; there’s something special about learning who walked your floors.

And Willa could use a little something special, because things have not gone according to plan. Her income is shabby, her full-grown children are back in the crumbling nest, and she’s left caring for a Scrooge-like father-in-law who’s also her ideological nemesis. In a parallel narrative that takes place 200 years prior—and in the same home—Thatcher Greenwood, a science teacher coping with equally tumultuous times, finds himself on trial in his community for teaching the theories of Darwin.

As I savored this sensory, slow burn of a book, I found myself rooting for Willa and Thatcher, two flawed but well-meaning people fighting for dignity amidst personal upheaval. Their twin stories (told in alternating chapters) underscore how ideologies divide communities—but they also show how empathy can forge unlikely connections between people who, though different, all want what’s best for the people they love. It’s no secret that Kingsolver is a master of her craft, and Unsheltered once again proves she’s got the whole package.

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Synopsis

How could two hardworking people do everything right in life, a woman asks, and end up destitute? Willa Knox and her husband followed all the rules as responsible parents and professionals, and have nothing to show for it but debts and an inherited brick house that is falling apart. The magazine where Willa worked has folded; the college where her husband had tenure has closed. Their dubious shelter is also the only option for a disabled father-in-law and an exasperating, free-spirited daughter. When the family’s one success story, an Ivy-educated son, is uprooted by tragedy he seems likely to join them, with dark complications of his own.

In another time, a troubled husband and public servant asks, How can a man tell the truth, and be reviled for it? A science teacher with a passion for honest investigation, Thatcher Greenwood finds himself under siege: his employer forbids him to speak of the exciting work just published by Charles Darwin. His young bride and social-climbing mother-in-law bristle at the risk of scandal, and dismiss his worries that their elegant house is unsound. In a village ostensibly founded as a benevolent Utopia, Thatcher wants only to honor his duties, but his friendships with a woman scientist and a renegade newspaper editor threaten to draw him into a vendetta with the town’s powerful men.

Unsheltered is the compulsively readable story of two families, in two centuries, who live at the corner of Sixth and Plum in Vineland, New Jersey, navigating what seems to be the end of the world as they know it. With history as their tantalizing canvas, these characters paint a startlingly relevant portrait of life in precarious times when the foundations of the past have failed to prepare us for the future.

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Preview

Get an early look from the first pages of Barbara Kingsolver's Unsheltered.

Member thoughts

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All (2476)
Love (751)
Like (1081)
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2678 ratings
  • 28% Love
  • 40% Like
  • 24% Dislike
  • Haddonfield, NJ

    I loved this book as I often do with Kingsolver’s books. This one was particularly interesting to me because I’d worked in the formerly grand but now economically depressed town where it was set.

  • TARPON SPRINGS, FL

    Kingsolver is one of the best for interesting characters with a compelling point of view that really makes you think. I loved the dual timelines and was excited to read this and it didn’t disappoint!

  • Chico, CA

    Barbara Kingsolver is my all-time favorite author. This book didn’t disappoint. After reading, I looked up Mary Treat and wondered if Kingsolver’s own research process was also woven into the story.

  • Champaign, IL

    I put this off for a few months because I was intimidated by the length and the mixed reviews. But it was wonderful! I cared so much about what happened to the characters that I couldn’t put it down.

  • Brooklyn, NY

    Barbara can do no wrong in my eyes. Such a lovely tale of past and present, made even better with the inclusion of the authors extensive botanical and biological knowledge. I love her and this book.

  • San Jose, CA

    I LOVE Kingsolver and was not in the least disappointed with this mirror-mirror history lesson in Civics, Politics and Humanity. A very unique writing style ties in the past with our present. I cried.

  • Frankford, DE

    True to form, Barbara Kingsolver delivers again. I fell in love with this family. She describes everything so beautifully and her characters are so rich and relatable. Fascinating historical parallel.

  • Rockwall, TX

    It's the literary flow and subtle details that I love the most. It's a slow build, but once you see the story-telling pattern, it's beautiful. The characters have a lot in common, even 150 years apart

  • Beach Haven, NJ

    I love Barbara Kingsolver, and this one is second only to Poisonwood Bible. This books is very political and shes not subtle about her feelings. But if you agree with her politics, it makes you think.

  • Montrose, CO

    I love the two stories in different time periods with their struggles and adaptation. Many references of what is happening in our times about the expectations and the reality like a job after college.

  • Pittsburgh, PA

    Another great book from Kingsolver. She masterfully tells the story in two parallel timelines. This is a thought provoking book where the characters feel close to us. As usual, great research material

  • Pickerington, OH

    Interesting read. A few passages were a bit too didactic, but contemplating the many ways a person can be unsheltered was well worth the read. Strong writing, great chapter transitions, perfect title.

  • Portland, OR

    A parallel story about two families from different eras living in the same poorly built house. Themes of home, family, science, economics and our future weave together in personally resonant writing.

  • Dallas, TX

    This is my favorite book I've read this year . It demonstrates perfectly that the human condition is timeless. That, even in the midst of tragedy love triumphs and even without shelter we can thrive.

  • Portland, OR

    Really strong characters, the duelling plots were equally compelling, great look at how generations interact with a changing world and work toward bettering the future (yet somehow remain stubborn).

  • Lincoln, CA

    Kingsolver's novel is breathtaking and you'll care deeply for her characters as they face the same struggles we all do: aging parents, financial struggles, trust in relationships, and growing pains.

  • Louisville, KY

    While the two time periods were a little confusing to start, I quickly became engrossed in the two, merging plots and the comparisons to the challenges our society faces today. Brilliantly crafted.

  • Chicago, IL

    Moms literally are the backbones of families. Love the jumps through times and the parallels in each character's life. Realistic look at today's American Dream and how it doesn't always turn out so.

  • West Lebanon, NH

    If you love literary fiction and beautiful writing and moving relatable family stories look no further! I listened on audio and just loved this moving story of history, science, and political unrest

  • Whiting, NJ

    Wonderful description of South Jersey Pine Barrens, past & present history intertwined. Metaphor of house with declining & emerging relationships. Poetic title of physical & emotional sheltering.

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