Written by Barbara Kingsolver
Review by Kristen McDermott

“‘Without shelter, we stand in daylight.’

‘Without shelter, we feel ourselves likely to die.”

Two brilliant narrators, separated by more than a century but residing in the same imperfect house, grapple with the challenges of keeping their families intact when the world seems to be coming apart around them. Willa (present-day) and her husband, an underemployed academic, have inherited a crumbling house in Vineland, New Jersey which also shelters two adult children, an infant grandson, an ailing father, and a mountain of debt. Caught “between Scylla and Charybdis,” Willa applies to the local historical society for funds to literally keep the roof over their heads. In the process, she uncovers the story of an earlier owner of the house, Thatcher Greenwood, an idealistic science teacher caught between his young, socially ambitious wife and a growing friendship with his neighbor, the brilliant (real-life) naturalist, Mary Treat. Both characters face domestic disasters that would overwhelm most people with frustration, anxiety, and grief, but they keep themselves going with a dry wit and unquenchable curiosity about just how bad things can possibly get.

It sounds grim, but the novel is hilarious and heart-wrenching at the same time. In spite of the shared themes and setting, the two voices are distinct and very much of their time period. If the parallels between Vineland’s venal 19th-century developer, Charles Landis, and the 2015 Presidential candidate Willa refers to as The Bullhorn are absurdly on-the-nose, that’s not Kingsolver’s fault: it’s history. She surprises the reader not with easy plot twists, but with the ways in which the beleaguered characters find reserves of joy in the midst of disaster. This much-needed novel reminds us that America’s deep ideological divisions are nothing new, and that hope lies in the older generation’s willingness to trust in the ingenuity and idealism of the young.