by Barbara Kingsolver
Reviewed by Elizabeth H. Cottrell
5 stars out of 5
I sometimes quip that I read nonfiction because it makes me think and fiction because it makes me feel. This book made me think and feel, with several factors contributing to its excellence: an unusual and interesting premise, well-developed and complex characters, a compelling storyline (two, in fact), and a brilliant treatment of a modern societal issue juxtaposed with the same issue in the 19th century. Without being preachy, Kingsolver manages to include a healthy dose of morality, ethics, and reverence for science. Even her contrivances (her frequent use of the word “unsheltered” and her chapter names taken from the last words of the previous chapter) did not cloy.
Chapters alternated in time, but both were set in Vineland, New Jersey, each with a family living in a house that was crumbling around them. She conveyed the sad, modern situation of a well-educated, middle-aged couple who find themselves unable to afford the needed repairs and faced with the challenges of grown children bringing their own personal issues and losses home to their parents. At one point, I rebelled against the unrelenting challenges that hit them, but then I realized there are families facing these challenges every day all over the country (the world). In their story, Kingsolver makes the reader consider the choices we all make about what we own, what we value, and the impact our choices have on society and the world.
The 19th-century story—connected because the dilapidated house stood in the same block as the one in the contemporary story, threw in some real-life personalities from early Vineland, especially Mary Treat, a scientist who was hardly recognized but who corresponded with Charles Darwin and contributed greatly to early botanical research. The young husband from the house next door finds in her a kindred spirit as he encounters the narrow-mindedness and censure of his employer as he tries to teach his young students about science and nature and evolution. It was interesting to be reminded how controversial this was at the time.
The back story is wonderful: As she researched for her book, Barbara Kingsolver discovered a treasure trove of letters and documents by Mary Treat and Charles Darwin in the Vineland Historical and Antiquarian Society archives.
Above all, I suppose this book is about human resilience and the myriad ways each person handles adversity. My book club members had varying perspectives and opinions. Not all the characters were admirable or even likable, and I often wanted to reach through the pages and shake one of them for their action (or inaction). But overall, I found the book fascinating and thought-provoking, with layers of depth that keep revealing themselves as I think about it later.
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