Review 1370: Unsheltered

Unusual for Barbara Kingsolver, Unsheltered is a dual time-frame novel, changing centuries every other chapter. The setting is the same, though, the odd town of Vineland, New Jersey.

In the present time, Willa’s family has discovered that the house she inherited in Vineland is no asset. Both she and her husband, Iano, have recently lost their jobs through no fault of their own. Willa’s magazine failed, and so did the college in West Virginia where Iano was tenured. When he finally got hired in an inferior level for a one-year position, the inherited house nearby had seemed like a godsend. But now she has found that it is falling down, with part of the old house not even on a foundation, and too expensive to fix.

To make matters worse, they are the only people in the family who offered to take in Iano’s ornery dying father. Their daughter, Tig, has also unexpectedly returned from a year in Cuba. Finally, their son Zeke’s partner has committed suicide, leaving him in an apartment he can’t afford with a baby son. Willa and Iano offer him a place to stay, but what he wants is to leave his son with them.

In mid-19th century Vineland, Thatcher Greenwood has moved his new bride, Rose, back into the house she grew up in. They are also living with her mother, Aurelia, and young sister, Polly. Thatcher is delighted with his wife but is soon to find that they don’t share the same values. His position as a science teacher pays very little, but Rose and her mother continue to demand elegancies that belong to their former life, before Rose’s father went broke.

Next door, Thatcher meets Mary Treat. Rose knows her as the poor woman who was deserted by her husband, but Thatcher learns that she is a scientist, whose correspondents include Charles Darwin.

Vineland was founded as a sort of utopia by Captain Landis, but Thatcher begins to see the cracks in that utopia. One of them is his employer, who will not allow him to teach anything more than rote memorization and hates most recent scientific theories, particularly Darwin’s.

Both of these main characters are concerned with keeping shelter over their families’ heads, but while Kingsolver links the stories through Willa’s growing interest in Mary Treat, she is also able to draw many parallels between the two times. The present uncertainty in the poor economy of the Eastern Seaboard she compares to the uncertainty in the lives of Vineland’s population, of workers promised much by a man who can repossess their property if they fail. An unmistakable political figure in the present day, nicknamed by Willa The Bullhorn, bears a metaphorical resemblance to Landis, who is essentially a conman. The main characters’ housing insecurity stands for the insecurity of the entire population as a result of climate change and the death of the American dream. Kingsolver has lots to talk about.

I’m not so sure how much I liked the dual narrative. I was far more interested in the present-time story than I was in the older one. Kingsolver seemed to want to write about Mary Treat, but Treat features more as an important secondary character. And I have to say that some of Willa’s discussions with her daughter and her ruminations about those discussions border on the didactic (which we know has been a fault of Kingsolver in some other books).

Still, it is great to have another book out by Kingsolver. She can be hit or miss, but I have very fond memories of some of her books.

Related Posts

The Lacuna

The Weight of Ink

Maddaddam

Advertisements

Review 1367: See What I Have Done

See What I Have Done is an interpretation of the famous Borden murders in 1892. It is absolutely seething with undercurrents and is occasionally very creepy. I think most people don’t know that Lizzy Borden was not found guilty of the murders of her stepmother and father. Somehow, this novel maintains suspense by creating uncertainty about that.

The novel concentrates most of its energy on the day before and the day of the murder, but it goes backward and forward in time and changes point of view from one character to another.

Schmidt depicts Lizzy as a childish 30-year-old who has been alternately indulged and oppressed by her father. Fatefully, on the day before the murders, Mr. Borden slaughters Lizzy’s pet pigeons with an ax. Then, instead of telling her what he has done, he leaves her to discover it.

There are other people in the house who have motives for the murders. Lizzy’s uncle, John, has hired a ruffian named Benjamin to make Mr. Borden pay attention to his demand that his nieces be treated better. Benjamin is lurking around and inside the house the day of the murders, which made me wonder whether the warning was to go awry. Also, the day before the murders, Abby Borden, who was killed first, confiscated from the maid, Bridget, all of the money she saved to get her back to Ireland.

The narrative style, from Lizzy’s point of view, is feverish. In all, I found this novel to be really interesting, imaginative in its approach and unsettling in effect.

Related Posts

The Wicked Boy: The Mystery of a Victorian Child Murderer

The Killer Inside Me

Famous Trials

Review 1364: Madame de Treymes

If you have read Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, the situation in her novella, Madame de Treymes, will seem familiar. As Madame de Treymes was written before The Age of Innocence, perhaps Wharton was trying out some ideas in this novella that she developed more fully in the later novel.

John Durham is in love with Madame de Malrive. He knew her as Fanny Frisbee in their younger days in New York, but now she is separated from her husband and has a young child. He proposes to her, expressing himself willing to adapt to any conditions she may make, but she says her husband’s family will never agree to a divorce. She has used her leverage because of her husband’s dissolute life to keep her son and does not want to jeopardize her custody.

Fanny says that the family never explicitly states its intentions, and she never knows what they are going to do. Her sister-in-law, Madame de Treymes, seems to be sympathetic, however, and she asks John to try to discover from her the family’s intentions.

Durham arranges a meeting with Madame and is first inclined not to believe the stories he’s heard about her. However, the meeting goes badly wrong.

This novella is about the inability of the aristocratic French and the Americans of the same class to comprehend each other. A misunderstanding on both sides results in unforeseen circumstances. This novella is subtle and more of a character study than a plotted piece, about the gulf between two very different cultures. I read this interesting novella for my Classics Club list.

Related Posts

The Age of Innocence

Obscure Destinies

Someone At a Distance

Review 1344: Minds of Winter

Cover for Minds of WinterBest Book!
By coincidence, Fay Morgan, who has traveled to Tuktoyaktuk, within the Arctic Circle, to track down information about her missing grandfather, meets Nelson, a man whose brother Bert has also disappeared. Fay’s search has been jump-started by the discovery of an old chronometer disguised as a carriage clock. This instrument was carried into the Arctic by Commander Crozier, a member of Franklin’s ill-fated expedition of 1845. Fay remembers the clock, however, in her grandmother’s house when she was a child. Oddly, Bert Nilsson, Nelson’s brother, was investigating the disappearance of his own great-uncle, whose tracks seem to intersect with those of Hugh Morgan, Fay’s grandfather.

Mixed in with the story of Fay’s investigations is the track of the chronometer, beginning in 1841 in Van Diemen’s Land, to which the ships Terror and Erebus are lately returned from Captain Ross’s exploration of the Antarctic. They will be going to the Arctic in Sir John Franklin’s search for a Northwest Passage. With him goes Commander Crozier.

This is an absolutely riveting book, following the course of a series of polar explorations up through the years to post-World War II, and finally to the present with Fay’s search. This novel does not so much document their physical hardships but explore the state of mind that leads men to return to these harsh regions again and again. It also follows the mystery of the chronometer. What path brought it back to England after it disappeared into the Arctic? What happened to Commander Crozier, last seen traveling with an old one, a race of men known by the Inuit to have been there longer than they?

O’Loughlin has done a beautiful job of intermingling history and fiction, reality and mysticism to write this novel, an exploration in itself. This novel is wondrous.

Related Posts

The Orenda

River Thieves

Fatal Journey: The Final Expedition of Henry Hudson

 

Review 1341: The 1965 Club! Frederica

Cover for FredericaThe Marquis of Alverstoke is known for his elegance, athletic skill, and selfishness. He never does anything that causes the least inconvenience for himself. So, when his sister, Lady Buxted, tries to persuade him to give a coming out ball for her daughter Jane, he does not hesitate to refuse. Mrs. Dauntry, his heir’s mother, hears a rumor about the ball and asks Alverstoke to include her daughter Chloë.

Then Miss Merriville comes to call. Frederica Merriville is a distant connection of Alverstoke’s who has come to London hoping to introduce her beautiful sister, Charis, to society with the object of making her a comfortable marriage. Since she has no acquaintance in London, she hopes Alverstoke can help her.

Alverstoke has little interest in helping Frederica until he sees Charis. Then he decides to throw a ball for Jane and Chloë out of maliciousness toward his sister, making it a condition that Lady Buxted sponsor Frederica and Charis. He knows that she will be furious when she meets the beautiful Charis.

Soon, Alverstoke finds himself embroiled in the affairs of the active Merriville family, which includes two younger boys—Jessamy, a serious sixteen-year-old, and Freddy, a scamp at twelve. After a few weeks and several scrapes, Alverstoke realizes he hasn’t been bored in ages.

Frederica is one of the delightful novels by Georgette Heyer, a writer full of wit and a recognized expert in the period. As is frequently the case with Heyer, I found it funny and touching with a cast of amusing and likable characters.

This was a book I read for the 1965 Club. Here are some previous reviews that also qualify for the club:

Related Posts

The Convenient Marriage

Cotillion

Friday’s Child

Review 1334: Jamrach’s Menagerie

Cover for Jamrach's MenagerieBest Book!
Jaffy Brown and his mother are eking out an existence in the slums of 19th century London when, as a very young boy, he meets a tiger coming down the street. Not knowing enough to fear it, he walks up to pet it and it picks him up in its mouth. The tiger is an escapee from the animal importer, Mr. Charles Jamrach, that has fortunately just been fed, so Jaffy isn’t harmed. Jamrach gives him a job taking care of his animals, and his fortunes materially improve.

Jaffy befriends two twins, Ishbel and Tim. As he gets older, he learns to love Ishbel, although she is alternately affectionate and aloof. With Tim, he develops more of a love/hate relationship.

When Jaffy is 15, Jamrach decides to send an expedition to the East Indies to look for a reported dragon. He picks Tim to go with Dan Rymer on the expedition, but Jaffy signs as a sailor. He has always felt an affinity for sailors and the sea. They set off on their voyage.

Jamrach’s Menagerie is a terrific novel. It is simply a good story that pins you to the page. It is imaginative, evocative, and the writing is gorgeous. I read this for my Booker Prize project, and I loved it.

Related Posts

The Signature of All Things

The Rathbones

Ahab’s Wife Or, The Star-Gazer

Review 1329: Varina

Cover for VarinaVarina is one of those books that makes me wish Goodreads allowed half stars, because it is better than the books I’ve given three stars (my okay or ho-hum rating) but it’s not quite as good as many books I’ve rated four stars. It is interesting, though, the story of Varina Davis, Jeff Davis’s young wife.

The novel begins when Varina, or V as she is called, as an old woman meets James, a young African-American boy she raised with her own children. At the time of the fall of the Confederacy, Jimmy was taken from her after she was captured.

James comes to see V because he remembers very little of that time and has read some things in a book he wants to ask her about. She is happy to see him, because all of her children have died. He is the last one left. The novel skips backward and forward through incidents in her life as she and James hold a series of conversations.

I found this novel both interesting and touching. I know very little about Jeff Davis and knew nothing of his wife. V seems to have been an unconventional and spirited woman. She led a difficult and sad life.

Related Posts

Nightwoods

Neverhome

The Good Lord Bird